09 December 2006

The Offence of Religious Festivals

Stimulated by current objections around whether we should celebrate Christmas at all, when this might be offensive to some, John Bell of the Iona Community offered this "Thought for the Day" on BBC Radio 4. (The emphases are mine.)

Thought for the Day, 7 December 2006

John Bell

Today is Thursday, but I don't hear many people objecting. At least I haven't noticed anyone in Glasgow ripping calendars from office walls in protest against the workplace being invaded by a religion which not everyone espouses.

I mean, Thursday celebrates Thor the god of weather and crops. And Thor was the son of Odin or Woden the god of war, education and poetry whose name is honoured every Wodensday or Wednesday. Such revelations tempt me to exclaim, 'By Jove!' But that would offend countless millions who don't want to be reminded that Jove or Jupiter is the god of oaths, treaties and marriages.

It's not just Christmas trees, flashing stars and civic nativity scenes that are suspect. For the sake of linguistic purity we'll have to go the second mile...except that would be quoting Jesus and non-believers would demand we say goodbye (or God be with you) to all that!

If you think this is an allusion to the annual displacement activity of taking Christ out of Christmas, you're dead right. But it's not because Christmas needs to preserved as the prime opportunity for the churches to engage in furtive evangelism via Bing Crosby's voice and charity greeting cards. No, I would want to defend Christmas as I'd defend Hanukkah or Ramadan or any comparable religious festival of a celebratory nature. For it seems to me that they have a humanitarian potential in reminding us of realities such as love, justice and generosity which transcend mundaneness and ego-centricity. And I believe that such festivals, which can include and enhance the lives of believers and non-believers alike, are increasingly necessary as the economies of the western world offer an alternative and much more sinister pantheon of deities for honouring.

Some of these deities hide behind advertised products I would not be allowed to mention here on air, but if I ask who comes to mind when I speak of fulfilment through eating fast foods, or success through having brand named clothing, you'll know the kind allurement I'm referring to. And you might also recognise that encouraging people to believe that having is more important than being is a much more socially exclusive activity than erecting a Christmas tree or hanging up tinsel.

To speak from a purely Christian perspective, a festival like Christmas which is centred on peace, humility and generosity is hardly a threat to a profit-driven secular society which can fund a foreign war but cannot eradicate child poverty. It is not a threat, but it might be a corrective.

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