Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Joy to the World: McDonald's and the Christmas Message

Saturday, on our way to an early-morning meeting, Steve and I decide to stop at McDonald’s for a quick bite to eat, as the first frost of the season lies sparkling on the low-lying fields beside the Arkansas River.  Between us and our destination, there is no other place serving a fast and easy breakfast—not one we can think of.

I know that Michael Pollan is right when he says that it’s not real food if it arrives through your car window.  I know he’s right because I’ve sampled said food (all too often) and have always found it wanting.  While it fills the gullet, it insults the innards, making me invariably regret my weakness in succumbing once more to its media-hyped wiles.  Still, what to do when you have limited time and few options, and need to eat a quick meal because your blood sugar levels won’t remain constant if you forego a bite to eat?

So stop we did.  And as we sipped our coffee and munched the egg sandwiches, I was surprised to see that McDonald’s has incorporated into its advertising themes for this season a Christmasy logo—a specifically theological one—focusing on the word “joy.”

Joy surrounded with little red snowflakes.  A Christmas message.  Or, rather, an advertising message wrapped up in a Christmas message, one with strong theological resonance for those of us raised on the Lucan nativity narrative with its stirring evangelical announcement, 

And the angel said unto them,
Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

McDonald’s as joy.  An egg McMuffin as joy oh joy.  American consumerism as an extension of Christmas joy, of the angelic announcement that all people will find in the birth of the Savior something to rejoice about, good tidings of great joy to all the people.

It’s easy to turn a meditation like this in the direction of consumerism and its illicit appropriation of religious messages for commercial gain.  But something else struck me this weekend as I looked at the announcement of joy on the side of the bag in which our fodder landed through the car window.

And that’s the incoherence of the Christian message itself, insofar as it has been appropriated by people of faith from the beginning of the Christian movement.  There is, woven into the very fabric of how we people of faith appropriate the central symbols of our faith, an incoherence that fails to probe the significance of those symbols at almost any level that goes beyond the superficial. 

We are seduced by the surface glitter, the smooth, dancing charm of the symbols.  And we fail to dive beyond the surface, to ask what the symbols mean for our everyday life—as signposts to a spiritual pathway that moves us outside the everyday, to deeper levels of experience and meaning than we encounter in the everyday, insofar as we remain always seduced by the surface.

The most obvious incoherence to which we don’t pay attention as we listen to the jingoistic renditions of the Christmas story rattling through the airwaves each year is this: as that story has come to be told in most communities of faith following Francis of Assisi and his development of the crèche, it’s a story about Jesus, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the angels.  And animals.

It’s a story about tidings of great joy that includes the holy family and the animals surrounding and celebrating the birth of the Savior in a manger: cattle, sheep, donkeys, all watching with reverence, and in some midrashic renditions of the story, talking together about the significance of the Messiah, kneeling in knowing reverence before the holy baby.

Sensible beasts, as sensible (and as beastly) as all the people hearing the evangelical tidings—welcoming it with the same joy with which the sensible human beasts who hear the angels’ announcement welcome it.  Joy on the side of a McDonald’s bag used to hold hamburgers and sausage biscuits and egg McMuffins overladen with slices of ham, carved out of the bodies of the animals adorning and extending the message of joy to the earth in the Christmas narratives.

Joy that both uses the animal players in the Christmas story as sentimental, revered embroidery decorating the holy kitsch of it all, and simultaneously slaughters the non-human sensible beasts who discuss the significance of the birth of Christ and kneel before his crib in awe.  Joy that is, if one thinks about it, hardly joy at all—not to the sensible animals, at least, whose flesh graces our Christmas tables when we come home to feast after the holy liturgies at which we sing about the joy brought to the world by the birth of the Savior.

Symbols problematize everything in the world, if they’re worth anything at all.  If they’re religious symbols, signposts pointing to the spiritual path that goes well beyond the boundaries of the everyday, and makes the everyday less certain and less monochromatic, symbols trouble us—or should do so.  Profoundly.

Because living with them calls our certainties into question.  Living with sacred symbols constantly subverts our assurance that we have a handle on the world, that we own it and everything in it.  Living with sacred symbols pulls us into a realm of thinking and practice in which all we take for granted—even the savor and nourishment of a warm egg McMuffin on a frosty fall day—suddenly becomes not precisely what we have imagined it to be.  In a way that turns everything upside down.

Chesterton was onto something when he said that the problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and found wanting, but that it’s never really been tried at all.  There’s a deep inbuilt incoherence within the Christian tradition, which points back to the foundational symbols out of which the entire tradition grows, and how they have been too easily appropriated from the beginning of the Christian movement—as comfortable furniture adorning what we think we know and what we take for granted, rather than shocking proclamations of a disturbing good news that turns our world upside down.

I suspect that all those now attacking the new atheism and secularism rolling through many of the formerly Christian places of the earth have it absolutely wrong, when they see the primary problem as a loss of faith or a determination to resist the good news of the Christian gospels.  The primary problem is that what most Christian communities of faith and most of us as followers of Jesus have offered to the world as an evangelical possibility is nothing of the sort.

It’s, instead, a set of trite symbols whose meaning seems altogether too familiar to us, whose power to discomfit us in radical ways has been obliterated, in which sensible animals kneeling before the holy manger are soon to become consumable Christmas table centerpieces.  And in which we don’t hear or see the incoherence we’re proclaiming as good news to the world, and insisting that others believe in order to make us even more comfortable with things as they are. 

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