15 December 2016

songs of the season

Each year there seems to be another battlefield being fought over the so-called War-on-Christmas. I confess that I do not know how one particular issue reaches such status, at times even in its ability to rise above all that peace and goodwill stuff. Now, one might assume I'm going to make a rant about how some businesses do not allow for saying "Merry Christmas," or how the corporate fat cats are shoving their pagan and insensitive "Happy Holidays" down our throats. Actually, I'm thinking of the modern trend of watching self-identified Christians to find some cultural burr, stick it under their own saddle, and ride the range of public irritation, offensiveness, and outrage.

In 2015 we had the infamous war on Starbucks because they did not print "Merry Christmas" on their paper coffee cups, which we were supposed to believe was an anti-Christmas (therefore anti-Christ) assault on the millions of Americans who simply wanted get their $8 sugar-caffiene fix. (Oh, the plight of the affluent!) Of course, none of this narrative was true to the intentions or actions of Starbucks, and it wasn't too long before those greatly offended were able to return to their mocha and frappe lifestyles, even if they had to wait for the non-seasonal cups to return –  the ones with the logo based upon Nordic mythology, which is must less-offensive to Christians than the ommission of a specific holiday phrase.

Perhaps it is only in the particular circles in which I run, but 2016 seems to have a lot of jabbing and condemning of Christmas music. Over the past few weeks I have seen a good number of articles (some more serious than others) and social media commentary on how terrible certain Christmas songs are that we should dump, or even ban their existence. Now, we've all enjoyed reading those lists that poke fun at some of the more campy holiday songs that are mostly ridiculous, even though we all know someone who will defend the likes of "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" to the bitter end. My concern isn't for the playing-around, but with what appear to be more serious attempts to chide certain Christmas music on moral or theological grounds.

(If only we were this adamant when it came to our worship music!)

Not every holiday song (Christmas-themed or not) has the best message, or the most moral content. Some songs are not as well-crafted musically or lyrically as others, and there is always the great variable of personal preference. These are all fair game for discussion. But the cultural and theological discussions are going to need to be dialed back just a bit, because the church ought to be about more than manufactured irritation.

There have been a handful of songs that are drawing the ire of would-be social commentators this year (some not for the first time), but I will limit my push-back to just two of them. First is the classic "Baby, It's Cold Outside (1944)." Over the past few years this song has raised a nod of suspicion, driven mostly by the mainstream political-correctness crowd who claim that this song tramples on consenting relationships, the allusion to a date-rape drug, or both. This is the result of a culture that has become so enamoured with its own significance that it has lost a sense of its own history, not to mention its inability to read and understand the plain meaning of lyrics.

First, this song is from 1944 New York City, a place much different than today, when the social scene was filled with entertainment-types hosting parties in their high-rise apartments. To this, folks would often perform for their guests (or have entertainment provided), giving rise to a number of good songs over the years. One such case was "Baby, It's Cold Outside," which was composed and initially performed by husband-and-wife, and gained instant popularity. Thus, the phrases and concepts are bound to that time period and should not have our modern behavior superimposed on top of them. For a woman (even girlfriend or fiance) to spend the night at her suitor's home was still culturally frowned upon at that time, which is where the play of the song originates.

Second, a reading of the lyrics demonstrates that the woman wants to stay the night, but is conflicted by the social customs and expectations of the day. Hence, it is a consentual relationship in which two people are torn between staying together and being pulled apart. The oft-questioned phrase, "What's in this drink," is then best understood as an almost-self-depricating-and-humorous self-awareness, much the same as was common phrasing at the time whenever someone was less-inhibited due to 'a few too many.' It is sad that we would rather assume and impose our world upon what was a different world once-upon-a-time. No, I'm not claiming that life in 1944 was perfect, but there was a shared cultural morality that frowned upon premarital sexual relationships, which one might need to explain in our contemporary society, where such things are laughed at by the voices in our culture.

The second song that is getting roughed up on the Christmas playground is "Mary, Did You Know? (1991)" I suppose that a good amount of the push-back here is due to a lot of overplaying that has happened with this song since it first gained widespread popularity. That's understandable, but the last couple of years – and especially in 2016 – it has become a popular move to offer a theological challenge to the intended meaning of this song. From internet memes to social commentaries in blogs and articles, the knee-jerk reaction is simply paraphrased: Yes! Mary did know! So, shut up!

Aside from perhaps some people hearing this song too many times in the December rotation, I really don't know why there is such pushback to this song. Probably this is another example of simply not reading the lyrics. The criticism of the song is based on the fact that Mary was told by Gabriel that her child would be the Messiah, and she sings in The Magnificat that this child will be great, sans the specifics that are mentioned in the modern song. That is to say: Yes, she knew that her child would be great and messianic, but there is little more than that in her self-stated 'knowledge' of what was happening. A longer reading of the Gospels shows that she did struggle with parts of Jesus' messianic role – she knew that he was to be God's Messiah, but she apparently didn't know what sort of Messiah he was going to be. We have no reason to think that Mary had a radically different understanding of messiahship than did everyone else in Second Temple Judaism.

Also to keep in mind here is that "Mary Did You Know?" is designed to be a reflection piece, centered on the mystery of the Incarnation, so that we too might ponder these things and treasure them in our hearts as well. Perhaps we miss out on this because so little of modern Christian worship involves reflection and meditation on the mystery of faith. The church in our culture, by and large, think of mystery as a riddle to be solved, not a person to be explored. Thus, we quickly get off on the wrong foot. No, this song isn't perfect theology, but it is a start – and it does seem to capture a lot of what people think about surrounding this Christ-child.

Again, there are more songs in question – some are genuinely poor, in musical quality and/or theology. But the endless complaints and manufactured irritation and criticism needs to go away, especially from those voices that are in the church. Christmas is indeed a significant season, and the gospel message that shines through the nativity ought to have teeth to it. But the Christmas songs are not the right battlefeld, and we ought to be doing more that is reflective of the Savior who has come.

There you have it – my Stop the Insanity plea for Christmas 2016.

Listen to that fireplace roar ...

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