February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
February 5, 2010
In the land of the network shows, almost every show has an annual Christmas episode. There is little surprise in most of these. Recurrent themes of family, giving, and peace run rampant through these episodes, and all are assigned to be part of the Christmas spirit. Very little new ground is explored. However on the Christmas episode of the show Community, the minefield of our society’s fascination with Christmas is traipsed upon.
The episode, “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas”i is all about the search for the meaning of Christmas. The study group at Greendale Community College does not merely touch on the themes of Christmas but goes to the heart of Christmas in a pluralistic society. What does it mean when Christmas is the dominant holiday but the people surrounded by it observe it differently or believe it to be a mass illusion shared so the darkness of the season might be turned into something? In the midst of the “Christmas wars” how do Christians deal with the powers who seek to bridle and constrain any celebration of Christmas (or any other religious holiday in this season for that matter) because they see it as threat or delusion? In the midst of these questions, the Christian response has been just as predictable as most of the other Christmas holiday specials and episodes. In one direction we find Christians who embrace and celebrate the pluralism that surrounds them, and refusing to deal with the question of evangelism or wonder what message Jesus’ birth brings to this world. In the other direction they bristle and stiffen, creating a litmus test on the phrase “Merry Christmas” as if shouting this phrase loudly enough will have them keep to both the letter and the spirit of the holiday, where they are, more likely, simply yelling loudly enough that they can hear no other voices but their own. It seems that the study group, incredibly diverse and pluralistic, would posit that neither position is in fact preferable over the other, for in both positions everyone remains unsatisfied.
Christmas as Threat
The beginning of the episode starts with a declaration by the Dean of the college, a clear image of the powers at work, announcing that the institution acknowledges no significance to this holiday season. Students do have the constitutional right, he reminds them, to lend significance of their own choosing as long as they do it in their designated holiday safe zones. There are powers at work in the world that can in fact see Christmas as a threat. If Christmas is celebrated by Christians alone, the powers that urge consumption are thwarted. Thanks to the incredible number of messages out there that speak of giving as the sum total of the Christmas spirit, this power has little to worry about. The powers that seek order though continue the attempt to constrain open proclamation of Christmas. The Dean forces holiday symbols into cordoned off areas in a public space. In an increasingly polarized society, the Dean desires for people to be isolated from any engagement with those who might believe differently. Such engagements can be messy affairs. Ideas of tolerance, while well-intentioned, do simply seem to keep people divided so the order of the day might not be interrupted.
The plot is driven in this episode by Abed’s proclamation, in good holiday special song fashion of course, that this is to be the greatest Christmas ever. Ironically, Abed is Muslim. He confesses, “Religiously I am a Muslim. But I have always been a fan of Christmas.” By attaching any significance to this holiday outside of one of the holiday safe zones, Abed not only gets tasered, but also risks getting expelled. He is sent therefore to the school psychologist, Professor Duncan, who seeks to snap him out of his delusion. By creating the show as the traditional holiday stop-motion animation, it would seem that the delusion Abed suffers is his insistence that they are all stop-motion animated. The main delusion that Professor Duncan is focusing upon is the notion that Christmas has any special significance whatsoever. Duncan is convinced that there is some underlying trauma that has forced Abed to believe this Christmas is to be the greatest ever.
Christmas as Guarded Treasure
From past episodes, regular viewers will know that Shirley is the vocal Christian in the group. She tries to be sensitive to others’ beliefs, although often cannot look beyond her own thoroughly constructed box of beliefs which also exists to bring order. If the powers that be see Christmas as a threat, Shirley sees Christmas as a treasure to be protected. After the announcement by the Dean opens the episode, the first dialogue that appears is between Shirley and Abed.
Abed: Merry Christmas everyone!
Shirley: Don’t you mean season’s greetings?
Abed: Come on Shirley you know it’s Christmas.
Shirley: Yes but as a modern Christian I’ve learned to be sensitive to other culture’s jealousies.
Later on in the episode, when all of Abed’s friends and Professor Duncan accompany him on his quest to find the meaning of Christmas, they are transformed into toy versions of themselves. Shirley becomes a baby doll, clothed in nothing but a diaper, an image perhaps of her immaturity and insecurity of allowing others to share Christmas. Shirley becomes the first leave the group, carried away by the Christmas pterodactyl summoned by Professor Duncan, now adorned as a self-proclaimed Christmas wizard. Shirley, like many other Christians, fail to see the gift that an outsider might bring to their story. In an essay on a story-formed community, Stanley Hauerwas writes, “The Christian story teaches us to regard truthfulness more as a gift than a possession and thus requires that we be willing to face both the possibilities and threats a stranger represents.”ii
Meaning versus Truth
Abed is convinced that he must find the “meaning of Christmas” for this to be the greatest Christmas ever. Meaning however is a slippery concept now. The group of friends themselves cannot find a single meaning in common. But who would expect them to. Even among Christians Christmas is multivalent. Certainly the event to look to is the birth of Jesus. But how is that celebrated among Christians? Is it remembered as Jesus’ birthday? Is it the arrival of God’s announcement of salvation for all people? Does the meaning run even deeper with the notion of the Incarnation? Does the breaking in of God’s Reign have some Christians focus on charity and good works at this time? The answer of course is yes. All of these run together but can be highlighted distinctly. Move out a little from the center and we have varying traditions, candlelight services, live nativities, family dinners, presents wrapped in shiny paper and tied with fancy bows, Christmas trees, lights, tinsel, stockings, a fat man dressed in red, groups of carolers, and of course our favorite Christmas holiday specials (some even stop-motion animated). All of these have meaning in connection with Christmas, although some are embraced and other shunned by various members of the community who call themselves “Christians.” When Christians have various grand ways of celebrating Christmas that are so prevalent, is it any surprise that those outside the community want a part of it?
The more appropriate question is not “What is the meaning of Christmas?” but “What is truthful?” Abed finds the meaning of Christmas, the first season of the television series Lost on DVD. He recognizes the metaphor, lack of payoff. The search for the meaning of Christmas will disappoint if we are looking for one meaning to set the holiday in stone. The gift of the Truth opens up a space for rich and varied meanings that are consonant with it. Not all meanings are to be accepted of course. When the fallen powers of the world attempt to co-opt the story of the King of Kings whose birth brings about the beginning of their end, care must be taken so as not to let Jesus be used as a prop supporting their continued desire to rule.
The powers that be, who think Abed is a threat or delusional, continue to press on to find the trauma that has pushed Abed over the edge. When Professor Duncan succeeds in finding the dark place for Abed, the failure of his mother to show up as she always has, the powers think they have stopped this ludicrous Christmas nonsense. Yet the truth prevails. Christmas still does have the power to be light in the darkness. Abed’s understanding of Christmas is not a complete grasp of the truth, but he is not delusional, nor does he capitulate to the powers that want to subdue Christmas under their sway.
In a pluralistic society, there will always be those who work against the gospel or ridicule it. Leslie Newbigin reminds us, “and claim to announce the truth about God and his purpose for the world, is liable to be dismissed as ignorant, arrogant, dogmatic.”iii Of course, this response is in reaction to the mingling of the Christian message with the powers and coercion. The Christian need not fear the reaction but respond instead with faithful witness that allows for freedom. Again, Newbigin writes, “We must affirm the gospel as truth, universal truth, truth for all peoples and for all times, the truth which creates the possibility of freedom; but we negate the gospel if we deny the freedom in which it alone can be truly believed.”iv
Perhaps “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas” is dissatisfying to many Christians out there since Abed affirms that Christmas has meaning, and therefore he gets to fill it with whatever meaning he wants it to have. But even Shirley does not abandon Abed. She remains with him. And her continued pointing to Jesus does not have her ultimately ostracized from the group. If truth cannot contradict truth, then there is a realization that they are all in this search together. Once again, Newbigin, “it is essential to the integrity of our witness to this new reality that to be its witnesses does not mean to be the possessors of all truth. It means to be places on the path by following which we are led to the truth…. When Christians affirm, as they do, that Jesus is the way, the true and living way by whom we come to know the Father (John 16:4), they are not claiming to know everything. They are claiming to be on the way, and inviting others to join them as they press forward toward the fullness of truth, toward the day when we shall know as we have been known.”v
Christmas is uncontrollable, uncontrollable and unexpected, bearing fruit in places thought to be foreign, working counter to the ways of the world. Christmas means that too.