Thursday, December 25, 2008

"What's Christmas but a time for finding yourself a year older and not a day richer?"

I'm with my in-laws for Christmas, and last night I got raked over the yule log for suggesting that children should be taught not to care about getting presents for Christmas. I was arguing that Christians especially should be brought up to reject consumeristic celebration of the secular holiday (call it Festivus, if you wish, though I'm not referring to the Seinfeld holiday) on which American children worship the false god named Santa Claus. Though not in so many words, I was more or less accused of being a Scrooge.

Tonight we're watching Scrooge (Neame, 1970), the best musical version of A Christmas Carol, and it struck me that it's the American consumer culture that is Scrooge, not me. Modern Christmas is the triumph of the Scrooges over the Dickensian sentiment.
I don't know how I missed it before, but A Christmas Carol is obviously an anti-corporate screed. It is a critique of Scrooge, a capitalist who refuses to give his employees fair working conditions: no living wage, no eight hour working day, no five day work week, no vacation days, no day off for Christmas, etc. Scrooge hates Christmas, not because he hates people in general (as the musical version would have it), but because Christmas is bad for business. He is being asked to give Bob Cratchit a day off with pay and to give money to various charities. He thinks the whole holiday is a scam by lazy poor people to get money out of hard working rich people. But in the 20th Century, Scrooge got his revenge. He managed to turn Christmas into a money-making business. Even if he has to give people a day off from work, he still makes a profit because he has made their celebration of the holiday all about getting and spending.

I don't have it in for celebration of what Dickens calls the spirit of Christmas. In fact, Dickens's point seems to be that the spirit of Christmas is to be generous to those less fortunate than yourself. (The ghost of dead businessman Jacob Marley tells Scrooge that "'Tis mankind should be our business, though we [capitalists] rarely attend to it.") And I don't even have it in for making merry -- decorating trees, dancing, driking, exchanging gifts. I've written on this blog about my theory of Christian art as redemption of secular culture, and that's what most of our Christmas traditions are about: baptizing pagan rites for Christian purposes. But there are some things that can't be redeemed. Violence is one of them. Consumerism is another. When you try to sell Christmas, the pagan (in this case, American capitalist) element wins, and the Christian attempt at redemption is overwhelmed.

So I say a hearty "Humbug!" on Scroogified gift-centered capitalist Christmas. And wish you instead a truly Dickensian semi-socialist merry Christ-Mass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives."

I was in the doctor's office waiting room this week, and I happened to pick up an old issue of The New Yorker from back in June. I was pleasantly surprised to find an essay by Tobias Wolff about a time when he saw Bergman's Winter Light at a church screening in Oxford. I really liked Wolff's optimistic reading of the film:
Bergman takes care to show that Tomas and the fisherman are not alone in their suffering, and that others, equally afflicted—the fisherman’s wife, the pastor’s steadfast lover, his hunchbacked assistant—are able to bear their pain into a still deeper faith and capacity for love.
This is how I want to read Winter Light. It is an unexpected affirmation of faith, not a rejection of faith as it is normally read.

But the point of the essay is not really about Winter Light. It is about the importance of art and beauty. After seeing the film, Wolff says he "felt harrowed, crust broken, buried things churning to the surface." At that point in his life Wolff was an atheist, but he was open to hearing what the minister might say about the film. Until the minister put up a slide of William Holman Hunt's painting "The Light of the World" which Wolff found "garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality". Wolff ended up continuing in his life as a disbeliever until, years later, he discovered the poetry of George Herbert, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and T.S. Eliot.

Wolff concludes:
We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.
But he notes that not everyone experiences beauty in the same way. A friend of his who was with him at the Winter Light screening was converted by the Holman Hunt painting that put Wolff off. His encounter with the painting put him on a path that eventually led him to being a missionary in Africa. Peggy Rosenthal over at the Image Journal interprets this as a lesson about the power even bad art can have to point us toward truth:
We must admit that in our popular culture plenty of bad art stirs people to genuinely good religious faith, a faith that issues in loving actions and a Christ-like spirit.
I'm not sure that's quite right. This is a lesson about the importance of context. Wolff writes that "the contrast between Bergman’s severe, honest art and this painting, on the same screen, chilled me" (my emphasis). I actually don't hate the Holman Hunt painting. I think it does have a (perhaps simplistic) kind of beauty. But I can see how in juxtaposition to Bergman's film it would come off banal. So why didn't Wolff's friend notice this jarring juxtaposition? The context of film appreciation is not entirely external. It is internal and subjective, too. We bring our own context to the work.

If all we look at is the objective context of the chapel in Oxford on a night in the winter of 1970, then all we see is the contrast between Winter Light and Holman Hunt. But if we could see into the heart of Wolff's friend, we could see why he was able to experience the beauty of the painting while for Wolff that small beauty was outshone by the brilliance of Bergman's film. Every object has some beauty in it, and every beauty has some truth. And the power of beauty's truth is so strong that it can work even through less than brilliant artworks. I guess I'm ultimately saying the same thing as Rosenthal: even lesser art can shape our lives for the better.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

"This is the website of John McAteer."

I haven't had much time for blogging lately. I've been busy applying for jobs. To that end I have created a website with my professional and personal info as well as samples of my philosophical, religious, and film writings.

Feel free to check it out at