Tuesday, January 9, 2007

DRAGGING OUT THE DICKENS

The dreary skies remained motionless for days that seemed to stretch into weeks. Beneath the monotonous canopy of grey, the Christmas season had begun. On the corner at the end of the street, Christmas trees were being loaded onto cars. The annual madness of the season had descended upon the masses of humanity who were eager to partake in all of the quasi-religious customs: tree buying, gift shopping, the display of colored lights - all to the sound of Christmas carols heard in the background or imagined in their heads.

Leafless trees marked the wintertime landscape of the city. As Edward drove down streets etched by their stark branches he was thinking about the Baby Jesus. He smiled to himself as he remembered his friend's voice imitating a Southern preacher's uneducated drawl, "Dance with the Baby Jesus! Two dollars."

Yes, this was the season of the Baby Jesus all right. The season marked by high anxiety and deeply disturbing emotions that rose the surface of people's personalities like some kind of mass-induced seasonal affective disorder. True, it could have its joyful moments. But Christmas had become something awful. Its celebration was riveted onto the soul of almost everyone from infancy as a yearly ritualistic punctuation mark of high expectation. All Americans - even Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and progressive secular atheists - were subjected to at least the mercantile onslaught of Christmas; the advertising hub-bub, hocus pocus sham bogus blasphemy of the December Jesus party.

His car radio was spewing "Christmas specials" in machine gun radio talk style and Edward slapped it off in disgust. Then he felt the guilt-conditioned response of being a "Scrooge." He smiled scornfully at the thought of this cultural antagonist, the anti-Christ who had been assigned a place that hovered delicately between the pantheons of villain and the born-again; a character wrought from the creative genius of Charles Dickens, that Anglo chronicler and conscience of our inherited values.

His car lurched along in the heavy weekend traffic. Shoppers were out there jostling each other, first with their cars, then with their elbows as they jockeyed for places at the cash registers with heaps of merchandise piled in their arms. He turned his car into the parking lot of a food store and stopped the motor. Edward stopped there for a few moments in the silence of his rolled up windows, gathering his thoughts as he watched the busy, driven motions of manic shoppers out and around him.

One of the things Edward did look forward to during the Christmas season was eggnog. He loved eggnog. And as he locked his car and headed for the store he made a mental note to buy a quart.

The automatic doors swung open. in he went for his few staples - eggs, bread, some fresh vegetables and fruit, milk, and of course, eggnog. Edward picked up a basket and started roaming the aisles. Overhead, he could hear the strains of "Away In A Manger." he picked up a dozen eggs thinking, "What's all this fuss about a virgin birth? Isn't it just as beautiful as an allegory, a myth? Why had people taken the incarnation of Jesus via a virgin birth so literally?" He believed in the Joseph Campbell theory of religion and found comfort there.

The sign said, "Bananas, 29¢/lb." He must have some bananas. He grabbed a bunch... "But what was this ignorant way of thinking which was so pervasive. Imagine grown-ups, well-educated, believing in such things... Oh I'll need some garlic and onions... and there's the lettuce. OK." The other shoppers passed him by, deep in thought about their purchases, weighing the prices. Edward wondered how many of them believed in the virgin birth. "If you ask them," he thought, "and they truly believe, the response will undoubtedly be 'It's just a matter of faith.' And don't dare ask what the basis of that faith is; none of them could really say for sure. But how many believe in Santa Claus. None of them would believe in Santa Claus but they would insist on the virgin birth. And why? What distinguished them?"

In the bakery now, he saw a barrel of freshly baked French bread, and a sign that read, "Special Today, 79¢/loaf." He picked one up and put it in his basket. It was still warm. "I don't doubt the story of the birth of Jesus in a stable, the wise men, Herod trying to kill all the babies, even the guiding star seemed plausible, but... a virgin birth? And how can these folks really believe that this Jesus was the one and only Son of God, exclusive of all others. The very presumptuousness, the arrogance of it bothered him. What of the Buddha, Mohammed, Confucius, Lao Tse and countless other holy men worldwide throughout the course of history? And why a man? Why not a woman? Didn't that show a bias toward a patri-centric society; shouldn't that give them a hint about religion as culture trance and shake them from their dogmatic blissful ignorance that what they are taking on 'faith' is mysterious claptrap invented by anonymous 'church fathers' and probably never intended by Jesus?...Oh, there's the eggnog!"

New holiday strains were coming over the speaker system, "Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright..." Edward reached for the last of his items, eggnog and milk. The words of the carol resounded in his ears. It seemed eerie that the lyrics and his thoughts were in perfect, diametrical sync. "This virgin birth and this determination to make Jesus the exclusive God incarnate was really closely akin to fundamentalism. Jesus had discovered his divinity within. He must have been particularly predisposed toward the divine. Yet there were some before him and some after him who had also discovered their divinity within, worked miracles, and profoundly affected humanity. Christianity's following of Jesus was a phenomenon not without parallel. How about the worship of Isis in ancient Egypt which ultimately spread worldwide and lasted thousands of years? Two thousand years is not an inordinately long time in the life of a religion, not in the eons of prehistory and recorded history all during which humanity has been seeking God."

There was a line of five people at the express check-out counter. As Edward took his place at the end, he found himself bobbing his head automatically to the tune, "Hark The Herald Angels Sing." His eyes wandered over the newspapers and periodicals displayed on the small new stand by the check-out. The headlines of the National Enquirer proclaimed in big print, "Jesus Found Alive And Living In Remote Argentinian Monastery." The photo of a bearded and robed old man wearing sandals accompanied the story. "Now here, truly, was some 'good news for modern man,' " mused Edward irreverently.

He placed his items one-by-one on the conveyor belt, still thinking about people's relentless fixation on the person of Jesus, his Mother, and the annual celebration of the birth of the "Savior." "It's not enough that he preached love and knowing thyself. That's not good enough for them to contemplate. They need to develop a cult around him; make him into the Son of God. Can't they just see that we are all Sons (or Daughters) of God, not as successful as Jesus perhaps, in most instances, but potentially capable of communing with the divine within us if we open our hearts to God?" "Six dollars and forty-two cents," said the disinterested clerk. Edward handed him seven, took his change, and strolled out just as a voice came over the intercom advertising "holiday specials."

The air was brisk. He could see his breath. It felt like snow. The sky overhead was still a gloomy grey. "Snow would certainly brighten things up," thought Edward as he cut across the parking lot. "Prospects of a 'White Christmas' would revive some dispirited shoppers too," he added in an eccentric sense of mental fair play, i.e., giving equal time to divergent thoughts. After all, he had been considerably slanted in his thoughts and a ridiculous sense of societal-induced guilt engulfed his mind. The insidious shadow of "political correctness" made his mind do an autonomic double-take, questioning his motives for thinking so strongly, so one-sided on these Jesus issues. Edward shrugged it off as he loaded his groceries into his car. "I'm definitely thinking too much," he whispered to himself.

Then he wondered whether Charles Dickens was ever haunted by the specter of "political correctness," which of course would have gone by a different name in his day - perhaps "Victorian morality," or something or other. As he backed out of his space, Edward kept thinking, "Dickens was of course outraged by the rank materialism and social injustice of his era, but did he really see Christianity as the countervailing force? Was he feeling bound to write according to Christian strictures of his time and place in history? Did he feel obliged to frame his Christmas Carol as he did to placate the culture and as the best means to assure commercial success? Or was Dickens really a believer in all of this Christian dogma, unable or unwilling to penetrate the shallowness (as well as the depths) of its literal acceptance of metaphor?"

"Bah humbug," Edward muttered to himself. he could not bring himself to be star-struck before the image of Dickens, any more than he would utter a 'Yes, father' to the authority figure in the black cassock, or an obedient 'yes, doctor' to the authority figure in the white coat. He was a rebel all right, a revolutionary. "Jesus was a revolutionary," thought Edward, "and though he revered the prophets before him, he followed no man in his quest for God." Jesus was his own man and Edward revered him for that while rejecting the body of so-called dogma that attached itself to his name over the many years since he walked this Earth.

During this Christmas season, Edward watched and listened with continuing disaffection. The idea of Jesus as icon repelled him as much as Dickens and priests and doctors being held out as idols in their respective fields. But maybe Christmas was not all that bad. After all, its hip hop holiness and empty words did make him think it through and sort it all out in his mind. Amen.

December 7, 1993/ Chevy Chase, MD

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