Lonely Christmas (Dead Meme?)


As an outsider looking in, this article about Christmas by Carolyn Briggs in the New York Times Sunday Style section made me very sad, and very curious, because, “if I were Christian, I would probably…” I guess it’s true that I love the social form and aesthetics of ritual, and these kind of affections still don’t really to compute in Protestant, post-Protestant America, which, it seems, has bit off its own doctrinal tail, perhaps as long ago as the 1960s. Something untoward has happened to the Christian “meme,” memes, if such things can even be said to exist, being something that are supposed to replicate.

On the one hand, the essay details the sad collapse of a family Christmas tradition, and the adult children who have completely disconnected themselves from both the holiday, family custom, not to mention the biblical injunction to “procreate” or, as the critics call it, “breed.” They come off sounding snarky beyond belief. So is it true now that Christendom has been forced by godless secularism into its own American exile? Because what are Christians to do when the religion stops making sense to the next generation? It seems to me that this is not getting figured out. Either the liberal churches are at fault for not making sense of things or there’s something too fundamentally amiss about Christianity and Christendom to ever get right again, that in some basic ways, Christianity and liberalism are today no longer compatible. This may or may not be true, this claim about liberalism, or if you prefer, progressivism, and Christianity. It could be that it is simply how things have always been, the relation between the churched and the un-churched, and that now we can look at the state of things with much greater clarity than perhaps ever before. So maybe that’s a good thing to understand about the state of modern Christianity.

On the other hand, what I find curious about the piece is the grit with which Briggs remains determined not to get mired in resentment, her determination to make things right with her children, on their terms, not hers.

I read this article together with “One Nation Under God?” in the NYT Sunday Review by Molly Worthen, a professor at UNC Chapel Hill. It’s about the erosion of Christian hegemony in the United States. There’s been a lot of ink spilled at the NYT about the political collapse of Evangelical Christians and the difficulties they are having keeping their young. About these kinds of claims I’m not sure what to make. Even if it’s true that the number of non-aligners, those who declare that they have no religion, are now 20% of the U.S. population, that still makes for a pretty overwhelming religious hegemon. I have no statistics upon which to base this bet, but I’m thinking that that, as white racial hegemony begins to erode, American culture will (continue to) reorganize itself on religio-cultural, maybe meaning Christian grounds, maybe something else. I have no idea how. All the Freudians and deconstructionists out there should know that disaffiliation, like any disavowal, is always a tricky thing.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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11 Responses to Lonely Christmas (Dead Meme?)

  1. Sandy Laden says:

    I was also taken aback by this article; I couldn’t understand why anyone else in the family did not take over the tradition. But isn’t this why lots of Jews spend Pesach at resorts in the Poconos and Miami hotels? The chaos and cleanup are removed, and everyone has to be on their best behavior because you are in “public”. AND, you still get credit for keeping pesadicha!

    • zjb says:

      thanks, Sandy. i was thinking of Jews going to resorts or on cruises for Passover. but these people tend to be more religious for whom all the home preparations for Passover would carry a heavy burden, whereas the article in the NYT describes something more related to a deep form of non-religion.

  2. Gail says:

    Now Zachary, how would you like the phrase “too fundamentally amiss about Jewishness and Judaism to ever get right again”? Christianity and Christendom are not reducible to trending statistics.
    I’ve not read the NYT articles, but my lived anecdote is that too much (but never all) of US liberal Christianity is merely Christendom–far too deeply and unreflectively wedded to the bourgeois status quo–social liberalism (individualism) and economic neoliberalism–ever really to feel compelling to a broad swathe of bourgeois youth today, who are, developmentally, looking to buck the status quo…at least until they are 28 and ready to start families themselves.
    But progressive Christians and global Christianity are doing just fine, thank you (and so is global evangelical and pentecostal Christianity, so all this American hand-wringing about the future of the church seems a bit fatuous and belly-gazing), though perhaps not in numbers to interest NYT journalists. I guess I’d submit with Kierkegaard and Muir, among so many others, that the vitality of Christianity is never carried by the masses.

    • zjb says:

      Hey Gail! You are probably right about trending statistics and this kind of journalistic hand wringing about American Christianity. I think I sort of said it somewhere in the post but I appreciate your critical pushback. But I don’t understand your comment about Kierkegaard, Muir, and the masses. I mean, I do, and I don’t, because I don’t think you have Kierkegaard apart from the Christendom he despised. I guess this make me a herd guy, das Man, more world friendly, and less estranged. As for Jewish religion, I worry about liberalism and Judaism all the time, especially in relation to Israel. But you knew that! The difference is that liberal Jews always have this familial ethos to fall back on, which means that you can be a Jewish athiest or a secular Jew in ways that it may not be possible for Christians. I think, though, that it was the sadness and the determination in the essay by Briggs struck me as very “Christian” in a deep sort of way. Look, I’m not even sure what “very Christian” even means or can mean, and that’s not for me to say with any clarity, one way or the other. But it very much reminds me of the way Christianity often goes unspoken in our Department of Religion at Syracuse where so much of the theorizing we do goes unnamed. So I guess that’s it. Merry Christmas, Gail!

      • efmooney says:

        What if we take Kierkegaard at his word, that his project was always Socratic? That means that culturally he is immersed in Christendom, but “spiritually” at home in ‘paganism.’ He has a nice dual religious identity, not unlike the Murranoes (sp?).

  3. Jim Watts says:

    Actually, twenty years ago demographers predicted that evangelicals would peak and start to lose numbers and influence about now. The arrogance of the movement’s leaders (like those of almost every movement on an upswing) was to think that their theology (ideology/philosophy) would protect them from demographic inevitability. Evangelicals trail “mainline” Protestants in demographic trends by about 50 years. Now, I would think that the condition of being on the wrong side of demography is something that might evoke some Jewish empathy.

    • zjb says:

      Thanks, Jim. You always confuse these questions with facts! As for Jewish empathy, that is precisely the spirit in which I’m posting about Christmas!

  4. Gail says:

    You can’t have Christianity without Christendom, sure, just like American Judaism is shaped by the (un)spoken pervasiveness of Protestant Christianity. Agreeing with this fact doesn’t change my conclusion that the vitality of Christianity (and maybe Judaism, too) is not carried by the masses.
    And I’m not sure that Christians are not falling back on a kind of “family” ritualism, grounded more in consumerism and nostalgic sensibilities about ‘family’, but still organized as material practices for and among blood relations. My kids have refused to go through confirmation–as you know well!–but there is no way they will give up the creche, the advent calendar, the carols, the scripture passages, Lights on the Lake, the tree, the family dinners, and the Christmas morning rituals of presents, food, and drink, etc. This is more a secular Christianity than anything else, I think. It certainly has nothing to do with ‘belief’ (whatever that is).

  5. zjb says:

    Thanks so much, Gail. Having never really written about Christianity either formally or informally, I feel like I’m going out on a limb, so I’m appreciating your patience (is that the right word?) for me. It would be interesting to see more theoretical reflection on secular Christianity and material Christian practice. I for one am willing to bet there’s a lot more “vitality” in these more popular forms of “folk religion,” “folk culture” than meets the eye, more to it than granted by the snark of critics from within and without. I’m still having trouble digesting this contempt (is this the right word?) for “the masses.”

  6. Gail says:

    I don’t think you need to apologize for writing about Christianity: Good thinkers think good thoughts. But remembering well your ardent concern about the fascist tendencies in art and politics, as approached by Benjamin’s “Work of Art” essay, I wonder at your trouble digesting ‘contempt for the masses’! But seriously, I’m really not expressing such contempt (though Muir and Kierkegaard did, so I guess I’m guilty by extension). My purpose in evoking Christendom, rather, was to suggest that increasing economies of scale (or looking at the world from the throne of power) yields a more diffuse hue, tone, texture, and/or skill (to anything) than is available at lower economies of scale (or looking at the world from, well, a manger?). This is as true of salad and conversations as much as social movements, like the movements we call ‘religious’. Of course, the masses can also do things really well that small groupings cannot, such as show up in statistics or history books.
    I will aver, however, that an Adornian worry about the reification of mass culture is likely still burbling around in me–and with the commodification of Christmas, on which so much of our national economy depends, well, who can chide me for giving in to a bit of cynicism this week, this day, this very (to me) holy evening? I find it a wearying time of the year, when I want to slow down and have patient, sustained conversations with the people I most love, but the name of Christmas seems to prevent, and not abet, this desire, not because of what Christmas is (from my heart) but of what it is (from Wall Street).

    Can you tell I miss our lunches? Shalom, friend.

  7. Gail says:

    Oh, and as for the vitality of secular or folk religion: sure, I agree. It’s a true and passionate vitality. But it’s not the vitality of Christianity, unless you want to tell me that what I arrange my life around with the Puritan seriousness you know so well is simply equivalent to my children’s love of the sparkly routine of seasonal ritual (it’s not). I would have, at one point, hoped that this love was the Pascalian base of something else, but, well, no. It’s not. But I’m glad to indulge them in the vital channels of love, family, memory, and culture that Christmas affords.

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