12/21/2009

THE PRAIRIE HOME CURMUDGEON

I apologize in advance for being a bit contentious in the holiday season.

But this ridiculous piece by the 'humorist' Garrison Keillor so plainly toys with anti-Semitism that it cries out to be taken seriously. Summary for those not interested in reading the whole thing: Keillor wants non-Christians (such as Unitarians and Jews) to not appropriate anything like the traditional Christmas vibe of his own upbringing, reaching a peak of invective with this rant:

Unitarians listen to the Inner Voice and so they have no creed that they all stand up and recite in unison, and that's their perfect right, but it is wrong, wrong, wrong to rewrite "Silent Night." If you don't believe Jesus was God, OK, go write your own damn "Silent Night" and leave ours alone. This is spiritual piracy and cultural elitism and we Christians have stood for it long enough. And all those lousy holiday songs by Jewish guys that trash up the malls every year, Rudolph and the chestnuts and the rest of that dreck. Did one of our guys write "Grab your loafers, come along if you wanna, and we'll blow that shofar for Rosh Hashanah"? No, we didn't.

Ick.

Speaking as a Christian myself, I would like to know how anything Unitarians or others might do with Christmas tradition invalidates my own experience? Or, for that matter, how innocuous popular songs written by Jews or non-Jews makes the Incarnation less, well, incarnate. "Spiritual piracy?" Please. Real Christians know that God is always with them, and who wrote the tune shouldn't be that important.

I bet Mr. Keillor has enthusiastically sung 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing" many times without troubling himself over Felix Mendelssohn's family history. Should the Eastern mysticism cultivated by Gustav Holst cause us to excise 'In the Bleak Midwinter" from the hymnal? Do the Unitarians need to get permission from Mr. Keillor's approved theologian for adapting a song written in the 19th century for their needs, as part of worship? For crying out loud!

It seems to me that Mr. Keillor has learned the wrong lesson. The success of others does not make us failures, and there is something deeply unsettling about Mr. Keillor's willingness to take a cheap shot at non-Christians involved in holiday entertainment. The day that some enterprising Hollywood secular type has the stones to make an historically accurate film about Martin Luther, he might (as a Lutheran) have cause to cry 'foul'. The fact that some great Americans like Johnny Marks (Bronze Star in WWII) or Irving 'God Bless America' Berlin happen to have made a living penning holiday-themed songs with a wide appeal doesn't hurt me.

Why it bothers Mr. Keillor is a mystery to me.

6 comments:

R. Moore said...

"Real Christians know that God is always with them, and who wrote the tune shouldn't be that important."

I think with this one statement, you invalidate your entire objection to Mr. Keillor's bitterness, as it reflects precisely the core issue of the essay -- ownership of myth.

I liked the essay -- and I can see why PZ Myers dislikes it -- it reminds him too much of himself, and the cult which bears allegiance to him -- and in general why a lot of people are offended by it. I like the ugly mirror Keillor has manufactured for us all for the holiday. Take that Norwegians!

The mystery is why everyone is not offended by Christmas. Mr. Keillor wants to claim the holiday for himself, businessmen want to claim for themselves, etc. It is all a very nasty business.

But "Real Christians" know the "truth" of the matter? Or any matter? I doubt it.

Now back to enjoying my holiday, on my own terms.

Burke said...

Oh man, do we have a hot button issue here. Quite frankly, the traditions of Christmas, regardless of who claims them, don't really belong to anybody. They have all been so horribly misconstrued and monetized that the Christmas most celebrate today really only belongs to the notion of capitalism and ritual of tradition.

What I think Scott meant by his comment on "real Christians" is that regardless of the traditions, these real Christians celebrate something completely different; that is, the birth of Jesus Christ and its spiritual significance. That said, I think this is probably embraced by a rather small portion of the population claiming to be Christians today.

So let the songs, trees, and jolly fat men be their own thing and call it Christmas for all I care. As Scott so importantly points out, one's celebration of a holiday in no way "invalidates my own experience." Just as two completely non-believing adults getting married in a Christian ceremony in no way invalidates my "true Christian marriage" to my wife. Both of these statements are held true by Scott's statement you seem to have the most problem with; that "real Christians know that God is always with them." This statement alone is what makes a Christians celebration of Christmas or his/her marriage so fundamentally different from the rest of the worlds.

Just my $.02

R. Moore said...

Burke --

This is what I find fascinating by Mr. Keillor's post. He is taken to task for "claiming" Christmas, and then, quite unintentionally, every one of his detractors repeats the error.

Look at your own phrasing:

"So let the songs, trees, and jolly fat men be their own thing and call it Christmas for all I care."

You create a "separate but equal" distinction, which always really means "less equal". You repeat the error in your comment on Christian marriage. You cannot avoid it really, it is probably ingrained in your thinking in a such a way that you are not even aware of it.

So again, I love Mr. Keillor's essay, not because I agree with it's premise, but because of what it reveals when one begins to criticize it.

Theo Bromine said...

quoth R. Moore:
I liked the essay
and
Now back to enjoying my holiday, on my own terms.

Sure, you, Keillor and everyone else can go ahead and enjoy whatever holidays they want, on their own terms. But no one has the right to say (as Keillor did) that some people have a proprietary right to certain aspects of holidays, such that they are able to dictate how others celebrate in their own way.

Speaking of Norwegians, when was the last time someone took religious offense at the cavalier way society neglects to observe Thor's day (for some reason, people tend to prefer to have their celebrations in honour of Frigga).

(Here's how my family celebrated part of the Holiday Season: http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com/2009/12/how-we-are-celebrating-season.html )

R. Moore said...

Theo Bromine said:

"Sure, you, Keillor and everyone else can go ahead and enjoy whatever holidays they want, on their own terms. But no one has the right to say (as Keillor did) that some people have a proprietary right to certain aspects of holidays..."

But this is exactly my point. If you are free to chose you terms, then that freedom can include "proprietary rights" is one wishes to define such a concept and then invoke it. Every definition one applies to the Christmas holiday is pure nonsense, and the more serious the concept of the "tradition" becomes, the sillier it becomes.

The satire and irony is levels deep here, and it is a wonderful thing when it occurs (even accidentally, as I don't think Mr. Keillor intended such a philosophically and comedic depth to his essay). No one commenting on his piece (including myself) can escape it. The only question is one of self-awareness.

Note the attack on Norwegians at the end of his essay. Does anyone remember the movie "Babette's Feast"? A brilliant allusion.

By the way, I checked out your blog -- looks like fun. My family is going to play "Arkham Horror" on Christmas Eve.

Scott Hatfield . . . . said...

Well....sorry, Richard, but I think you're reading far too much into this. Though, in fairness to you, when I read the scrap that you zero in on, I can see why you might have had an 'ah-ha!' moment.

I wasn't trying to play my own version of the 'True Scotsman' argument. I didn't mean to 'claim' Christmas as my own exclusive property. Perhaps what I should've said was something along these lines: "Christians claim that God is always with them, and if that's true, then no amount of creative activity by non-believers is every going to lead to their Christian spirit being 'pirated' away!"

In effect, I am using an idea from Christian theology to debunk Mr. Keillor's premise.

As for your thoughts on Burke's comment, gee. Am I on the outside looking in, or on the inside looking out? Can I say that Christmas means something to me that it doesn't mean to non-Christians without making them second-class citizens of a sort? I really have no idea whether or not what's in my heart could possibly count on that score. I really don't want to go to anyone and tell them to 'leave MY Christmas alone'. That just strikes me as, well, churlish and small-minded. But, logically, if I am a sincere Christian, I should be expecting some sort of experience connected with the observance of Christmas, something other than what non-believers experience. In the same way, many Christians might commemorate Passover, but it means something different to observant Jews. I just don't see these sort of statements as being inherently exclusionary or privilege-begging.

But I sure as hell can understand why a lot of people might:

"And in despair I bowed my head,
there is no peace on Earth (I said)
for hate is strong,
and mocks the song
of peace on Earth, good will to men."

But there are other verses which are more hopeful.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!