About five years ago, in one of my periodic attempts to purge myself of excesses, I made the happy decision to do away with that luminescent demon we all know as television. I found that I was just wasting too much time in front of the infernal contraption, allowing myself not just to be entertained by sit-coms and such, but also to be informed in my thinking by many of the major news networks. Admittedly, I was only spending about four or five hours a week in front of the tube – an insignificant amount of time compared to the national average – but this was enough to help me see clearly what most of us have long suspected, and what some researchers have now concluded: there is a kind of "soft terrorism" associated with our television fascination. Not only is it a universal soporific, it insidiously compels us to fall into step with the unquestionable dictates of the herd mind.
Every now and then, though, I get a taste of what I have been without. In airports, for example, to appease the masses, there is usually some kind of news or sports channel blaring above the heads of travelers waiting to board their flights. Sometimes I will sit beneath one of these squawk boxes in disbelief at the sheer amount of information that is hurled at us at fast-ball speed. With so much stimulation, it's hard to be critical about what you're hearing, so the networks encourage us not to try. Just sit back, be entertained, and if you can adequately parrot back what you have seen and heard, you can count yourself among the well-informed. Stay away from it for a while, though, and you will soon come to see it for the bizzaro-world it actually conveys.
I know television is an easy, and perhaps an unlikely target for Christmas day, but I have been a little dismayed at how often this techno-toy is implicated for its ill effects in a book I have been reading: Linda Sax's, The Gender Gap in College: Maximizing the Developmental Potential of Men and Women. Though it is not the central focus of her research, Sax nevertheless points out time and again the direct correlation between the amount of time that students spend in front of the tube and their diminished capacity for leadership, creativity, and critical thinking skills. Based on my own experience, I would add to this a tendency simply to accept the party line as gospel – whether it is offered by the Fox News Channel or CNN. In bizarro-world, for example, the corruption on Wall Street is able to be overlooked for the good of the general economy, for after all, the perpetrators are the "masters of the universe" and answer to a different authority. The trick of pedagogy then becomes how best to deconstruct this fabricated worldview and propose a viable, and even hopeful, alternative.
As we read the lectionary texts for Christmas, it is easy to overlook the masterful pedagogy offered by both John and Luke. We have become so familiar with the account of the angel appearing to the shepherds, for instance, that we have shielded ourselves from the unsettling force of its original impact. Indeed, when I hear this text read from the pulpit, I cannot help but be drawn back to my early childhood years, sitting as I did every holiday season in front of the tube, taking in all of the familiar dialogue of the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Perhaps you’re like me and cannot shake the image of Linus clutching his blanket and reciting the age-old story from the Gospel of Luke. But the innocent narration of a child only obscures the revolutionary character of the text, for it was intended in the first century not only for comfort but for challenge, for exposing the Roman Empire as the bizzaro-world it actually was. The key to the disruption, of course, lies in Luke's use of the term "good news" (euangelion).
Many of my students are often distressed to learn that the evangelist here is not much of an historian. From their perspective, there is no way that Augustus (d. 4 BCE) could have died a full ten years prior to the date when Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria (around 6 CE). They are used to the notion that if it appears in print, or any other medium for that matter, it must surely be fact, and therefore true. To suggest that the Bible is a bad history book is to undermine completely their faith in God. But Luke is not interested in history here; on the contrary, he is establishing in no uncertain terms the grand political context into which Jesus was born.
Luke, the Gentile physician and companion of Paul, would have known well that the audience to whom he was writing was familiar with the grandiose claims that Octavius, the august Caesar, had perpetuated about himself during his reign as emperor. Here was the true "savior," or so the propaganda proclaimed, a Lord whose illustrious presence in Rome was "good news" to be declared throughout the imperial provinces. Luke's medical background probably led him to place special emphasis on the way that "salvation" (soteria) was employed in this political context. Augustus – a demi-god himself, according to the lore – had been able by his power and glory to secure the very well-being, the health and wholeness, of the empire.
This was the official doctrine, the word come down from on high and broadcast by all the reputable media outlets. Some, who had a special connection to this master of the universe, had even come to believe it, but others – the outsiders, society's debris – had their profound doubts. But in the absence of any other narrative they had little else to hope for. Here, however, is where Luke is able to ply his genius, using all the familiar vocabulary – "good news," "savior," "Lord" – but in reference to one whom Rome would clearly regard as an anti-hero: a Jewish babe, wrapped in strips of cloth, taking in the first breaths of life amidst the earthy smells of a stable. Removed in dignity and esteem from the powers-that-be, he is nonetheless the incarnation of God, according to the evangelist, and the fact that he comes into such a vulnerable space reveals to the world something essential about the divine nature.
Though it is difficult to realize amidst the chaos of our culture, Christmas is a time for us to take a step back and account for how we have allowed ourselves to be co-opted into the bizarro-world of empire. Do we strive to be our own masters of the universe, aspiring to achieve the material wealth that we believe will afford us a new lease on life, a corner on health, a hold on salvation? Or can we affirm instead that we are called in some way to live precariously in this world, in faith, in vulnerability, in the kind of well-being that befits our truest humanity, as revealed to us in the one who was most truly human?
The full impact of another text – this time from the Gospel of John – is also lost on us during the season of Christmas, partly because of its familiarity and partly because of its inadequate translation into English. It is instructive to read it in conjunction with Luke's birth-story. The Word, John tells us, who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were created, became flesh and "lived among us" (Jn 1:14), and thus provides the most perfect example of God's unique love for the world. Jesus embodies God's willingness to be intimately bound up with humanity. But how much more compelling to learn that there is a significant nuance added when we read the passage in Greek: "…the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us."
The implications here are abundant, but at this juncture in our history I take solace in the fact that while the so-called masters of the universe manage the funds that make the money that keeps our world moving on apace – or so the official narrative has long proclaimed – the creator of the cosmos chooses instead to be revealed not as a scion of wealth and privilege, not as the ruler of empire, but as one whose home can be found among the shepherds of the field, among the "dusty ones" in the desert.
And this is the wisdom that we are called to ponder and affirm at Christmas. It is in the weakness of God that the earth and all its inhabitants shall come to know true health, or in the idiom of our tradition, "salvation." I do not deny that this is enough to suggest its own kind of bizarro-world, but it is the nature of the Kingdom that we as disciples of the Word must constantly seek. And now the task is all the more urgent as the once-unquestioned alternative has – like imperial Rome itself – crumbled so thoroughly on its foundations.