1. Another fascinating piece by Tanya Luhrmann over at the New York Times argues that “Hark, the Herald Angels Didn’t Sing.” Amidst sobering reminders from strict biblical constructionists that many Christmas details are imagined or embellished, Luhrmann advocates a middle road for how to engage the Bible with imagination, ht SZ:

mp_passionplay1I am no theologian and I do not think that social science can weigh in on the question of who God is or whether God is real. But I think that anthropology offers some insight into why imaginatively enriching a text taken as literally true helps some Christians to hang on to God when they are surrounded by a secular world…

Which position you take depends on whether you are more worried about heresy or atheism. The pope and Albert Mohler are concerned that Christians get God right. They fear that congregants in these experientially oriented churches will imagine God in a way that inadvertently violates Scripture and leads them astray (God might become wholly loving, for example, and not at all judgmental).

The pastors of the more experiential churches are worried that people will not get God — period. They see more people unaffiliated with churches than ever: one-fifth of American adults, a third of all American adults under 30. They use these techniques to help to make God more compelling to people.

The nonobvious point for secular readers is that a commitment to the literal truth of the Bible can be an intensely creative process. It captures your attention. It demands that you work to make the text come alive. For people who want to keep their faith but harbor doubts, or even for people who are merely aware of the doubts of others, that can make all the difference.

What’s unclear about Luhrmann’s point is whether or not she’s aware that this problem isn’t a particularly modern one. From vivid Medieval performances about Jesus’ exploits in Hell on Holy Saturday, to Passion plays lampooning a supposedly impotent Joseph, sensory embellishment has always been some part of the bargain. So maybe it’s not so much the threat of secularism as it is just a psychological need (or the least a propensity) for a certain type of person to engage Christianity through elaborated images. Since the people engaging Christianity in these ways aren’t usually construing it as a theological project, I would tentatively guess that we’re not at major risk for “heresy” in this particular area.

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2. Speaking of the holiday season, Marilynne Robinson posted an excellent Advent devotional at the web-magazine Journey with Jesus. The entire piece is well-worth a read; it’s profound and, of course, beautifully written, ht DZ:

The prophets tell us that we are contained in an ethical cosmos. Choices have consequences. These are not, in the overwhelming majority of cases, choices we make as individuals, though in the degree that we are all open to the suasions of fear and hatred, or of greed and oppression, we are guilty of the evils that follow from them. Then the recoil of divine justice is the effect of the very contempt for divine justice that implicates humankind in its own suffering.

But the God of Israel does not leave the matter there. His grace is the sacred difference between the grim story we could tell ourselves about the shadow war of human nature against everything that deserves the name wellbeing, and the story the prophet and the psalmist tell of the new heaven and new earth somehow forever implicit in this wronged and profoundly good Creation. The Lord is in our midst. Rejoice in the Lord always, reads the epistle for this week.

3. Staying in the holiday spirit, after more than 30 years, the AV Club has at long last produced the definitive article on the atrocious Star Wars Christmas Special. As it turns out, the opening cartoon is actually pretty cool:

 

4. An article on Lifehacker this week hilariously broke the news on the one major thing that adults and three-year-olds have in common, ht JD:

Rarely do we like doing anything we have to, but we tell ourselves it’s a necessary part of daily life. That’s the difference between adults and children when it comes to unwanted tasks. But as Tim Ferris points out, the kids may make the smarter choices:

‘If you wake up on Saturday morning and go surfing to decompress for the week, that is different from having to wake up at six every morning Monday to Friday and take investment bankers out to surf. One is elective and one is mandatory. Adults and three-years-olds are very similar, in that as soon as we have to do something, we start to resent it. For instance with me, I don’t like to do a lot of speaking engagements like a lot of authors do. I just find it really boring. I now only do two types: it’s either top price or free. If you realize that income is intended to ultimately improve your quality of life in some fashion, then it makes it easier to forgo some the fleeting, high-maintenance opportunities.’

5. Salon.com did a brilliant rant about the Elf on the Shelf, the Christmas tradition of semi-ironic, competitive surveillance that, it seems, is all the rage for mommies everywhere. Salon’s piece is an excellent example of a common-sense secular approach to the Law as something that, morality aside, is ineffective and impractical. We see here a gut-level reaction to taking the grace out of Christmas. It’s been discussed on this site before; the twist here is that the Elf isn’t just for placing demand on kids, but also for parents: another example of the meta-elf of parenting performancism that’s making its lists every step of the way, ht SMF:

395105_10151170852542613_1295293409_nI may have grown up with a Santa who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake, but my Santa was never lurking around in my house, keeping tabs on me for weeks at a time. I don’t know, I just find the whole concept of an advent-long period of intense scrutiny by some judgmental little voyeur in a pointy hat creepy. Better than a Krampus, I guess, but still. Furthermore, the notion that the generosity of the season is not just contingent upon a child’s behavior, but that said behavior is being studied and judged by an independent auditor [!], is bizarre.

He’s a “tradition” you can buy at Target, a holiday no-brainer. He teaches kids that they’re constantly under surveillance, and to behave for strictly mercenary reasons. More than that, though, he gives parents one more seasonal thing to be gung-ho about, one more obligation to fulfill and then Facebook brag about. So go ahead and put my kids and me on the naughty list, Crumpet, I don’t give a crap. Just stay away from my family. And go gift-wrap somebody else’s toilet.

6. Businessweek ran a harrowing parable of human nature on Jack Whittaker, a lottery winner of 314 million dollars from 2002. It’s a perfect example of how gift of remarkable good fortune can slowly insinuate itself into entitlement, entitlement into demand, and demand into paralysis and death. The entire column, again, is worth a read, but we’ll just hit some highlights. Not for the faint-hearted, ht TB:

Whittaker’s faith that he could handle his enormous lottery winnings with the same qualities of self-reliance, hard work, and aggression that had allowed him to master previous challenges was tragically misplaced. Less than three months after the incident at the Pink Pony, Whittaker was arrested after driving his Hummer into a concrete median on the West Virginia Turnpike. The arresting officer, M.J. Pinardo, reported that he smelled alcohol, but Whittaker refused sobriety tests and became “extremely belligerent.” The police found a small pistol and $117,000 in cash on Whittaker. “It doesn’t bother me, because I can tell everyone to kiss off,” he explained to reporters outside the local courthouse after his arrest. His reply to criticism of his gas-guzzling Hummer was equally succinct: “I won the lottery,” he said. “I don’t care what it costs.”

In his experience, Kosnitzky says, most lottery winners suffer tremendous guilt as the result of their good fortune; they’re also troubled by family members and friends who feel entitled to their winnings and who become angry when they don’t get what they feel they deserve. Without access to financially and psychologically sophisticated advice, winners quickly find themselves easy marks for every kind of manipulation and often take refuge in preexisting addictions, which are compounded by seemingly inexhaustible wealth.

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7. At Patheos, the Christ and Pop Culture blog did am insightful and sympathetic year-end movie writeup. Given PZ’s recent interest in the 2012 movie adaptation of Deep Blue Sea, and his use of it as an illustration in the recent Grace in Practice course, it’s a particularly interesting area of the writeup:

The post-war setting lends the film an overriding anxiety; tension-filled pauses emphasize social-psychological burden; fluttering cigarette smoke adds stress to dark, muted rooms; that old strain between passion and reason is displayed on faces equally bewildered and irritated. The three main leads all manage to transcend their stereotypical roles, giving each character a soulful depth that makes the conflict believable.

The Deep Blue Sea is a deft portrait of a suicidal woman who becomes isolated in a cold marital relationship and then becomes increasingly unstable in an adulterous one. Even if the narrative options out of her plight seem unrealistically [?] reduced, so it often is with the troubled, shriveling soul.

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8. For those inclined toward apologetics, neuroscience, or the the nature of miracles, there’s a deeply interesting article in The Atlantic on the new spate of mystical perception, now framed largely by neurology:

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

To my money, the sharp natural/supernatural divide here is assuming a theology (along the lines of duplex ordo) that few people still hold. Though there’s some scientific assertiveness here, the natural/supernatural origins of the same event are by no means incompatible. Unfortunately, Christians have left themselves vulnerable to attacks like this by too-often claiming a totality that excludes naturalism, and science sometimes attempts the same thing from it’s side of the ring. The more important question is, “why does it all matter?” There’s of course a place for apologetics and religious epistemology and all that, but the lineaments of the debate, at least as they appear in this article, lean heavily toward self-justification and need for intellectual affirmation on all sides.