Recently I got involved in a debate about the relevance of religion. A fellow contributor to OpEdNews took the position that because its myths can be interpreted to support either right or left-wing political positions, the myths themselves are meaningless and so is religion itself.
Accordingly, the latter, he said, should be rejected entirely in favor of 18th century rationalism like that expressed by Thomas Paine. For my debate partner, a world without myth is a richer, more peaceful (!), less problematic one.
I can’t get that argument out of my mind especially at this Christmas season.
The position in question ignores the fact of class struggle and that any document worth its salt be it the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, or the writings of Paine himself will be subject to conflicting interpretations by forces of the left and right. Far from rendering meaningless the documents just referenced, the conflicts only underline their importance and power.
Nowhere does that become clearer than in the cases of mythology, poetry, and art. No holiday better underlines the power of myth and the battle over its interpretation than Christmas.
Of course, right-wing interpretations of Christmas have carried the day in America for well more than a century – perhaps always. I’m talking about the holiday’s commercialization. It unveils the true religion of America. It discloses the fact that ours is perhaps the world’s most prominent religious fundamentalist culture.
That’s hard for many to see because America’s religion is a masked capitalism that pretends to be secular. However, capitalism’s God is real and all powerful. It’s called Market. In the Freudian sense, it’s a fetish – a human creation treated like a conscious subject with an infallible mind and will of its own. Market decrees who’s rich, who’s poor, who lives, and who dies. It directs our holy wars. For true believers to transgress its decrees for instance by advocating socialism is heretical and punishable by war, death, and excommunication in the form of economic sanctions. (Cuba is a case in point.)
Market’s accompanying supporting myths are powerful too. All of them, of course are unprovable and unfalsifiable. They involve tales of a guiding “Invisible Hand,” Natural Order, a basically competitive Human Nature, Bulls, and Bears, free markets, trickle-down, democracy, the richest country in the world, and “America as leader of the free world.” No amount of contrary evidence can disprove such fairy tale convictions for Market’s faithful. That means that despite protests to the contrary, it’s all religion. It’s all myth.
Even those who insist on “the reason for the season” routinely reduce the religious meaning of Christmas to maudlin reflections on cute babies, mangers, shepherds in bathrobes, and church services that do nothing to challenge capitalism, commercialization, and the God called Market. Popular Christianity’s silence on the point ends up endorsing the whole embarrassing mess and its entrenched superstitions.
And so, Christmas is dominated by Market’s epiphanies such as Black Friday, “shopping days till Christmas,” special sales, plastic toys, meaningless gifts, and the deity’s final decree whether the season was economically successful or a flop. It’s all about Santa Baby, Rudolf, and Jingle Bells. Not a mention here of the Jesus Myth and its fundamental challenge to all of that.
(By the way, that the Bible’s Christmas story is a myth says nothing about its truth. In fact, from time immemorial, humans everywhere have employed myth to express the deepest truths about life that would otherwise remain ineffable – arguably the most important ones that escape our five senses. They’ve used mythological markers like those appearing in the Christmas story – divine signs, virgins conceiving, angel appearing, special stars shining, sorcerers perceiving hidden meanings, symbol-laden gifts, dreams, evil kings, and narrow escapes.)
And so, what’s the truth of Christmas? For those of us who recognize class struggle, as well as the truth and power of mythology, it’s about:
- A houseless working-class family
- Living in an insignificant country (maybe like Yemen)
- Under a hated occupying empire (certainly like the United States)
- An unwed teenage mother
- Driven by state violence to seek refugee status in Egypt
- Whose son grows up to become a poor street preacher
- Without home or visible means of support
- Announcing a Kingdom without Caesar
- Where the poor will and rich will exchange positions
- And all debts are forgiven
- The child growing up to be an enemy of the state
- And of its supporting religious establishment
- To become a victim of torture
- And capital punishment
- But the founder of a renewed Jewish community
- Where there are no poor
- Or private property
- But where everyone holds all things in common
- Until that community too is destroyed
- By the reigning imperial state (in 70 CE)
- Only to be co-opted by that empire (in 325)
- To become its most enthusiastic supporter
- Down to our own day.
Sometimes I feel myself almost hating Christmas. Even within my own family, I can’t mention the meanings just listed without eyes rolling in my adult children’s heads – without being accused of negativity and politicizing an otherwise happy holiday. Let’s keep Christmas meaningless is the unspoken injunction.
It’s like the debate I mentioned at the outset. There the unspoken imperative is to close our eyes to the reality of class struggle. It is to surrender the most meaningful language we have – that of myth, poetry, image, art, and history – to the forces of the right to support their own capitalist religion, their own Market God, and their hideous distortion of one of mythology’s most powerful stories.
But I’m reluctant to do so. Like the entire Jesus story, Christmas is about a new political reality (the Kingdom of God). It’s about a coming Great Reversal where the rich will be poor and the poor rich. It’s about debt forgiveness, and about living a communal ideal that is far closer to what capitalism treats as the heresy of communism than to the masked religious creed supporting the destructive idolatry of the Great God Market.