Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Magic of Mystery

One of the challenges that Christmas poses for Christian parents is to try to strike the right balance between the magical wonder of Santa Claus and the beautiful mystery of the birth of Jesus. You don't have to worry about your kids getting excited about Santa. They get bombarded with images, references, and stories of the jolly fat man. But you do sometimes worry that all this focus on Santa may diminish their understanding of the real meaning of Christmas. Does their faith in Santa interfere with their faith in God?

In Friday's WSJ, Tony Woodlief opined that it's not only acceptable, but understandable that for children the path to God can go through Santa Claus:

Perhaps a more responsible parent would confess, but I hesitate. For this I blame G.K. Chesterton, whose treatise Orthodoxy: The Classic Account of a Remarkable Christian Experience had its 100th anniversary this year. One of its themes is the violence that rationalistic modernism has worked on the valuable idea of a "mystical condition," which is to say the mystery inherent in a supernaturally created world. Writing of his path to faith in God, Chesterton says: "I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician."

Magic-talk gets under the skin of many, like renowned scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. This is doubly so when it is what the Christ-figure Aslan, in C.S. Lewis's "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," calls "the deeper magic," an allusion to divinity. Mr. Dawkins is reportedly writing a book examining the pernicious tendency of fantasy tales to promote "anti-scientific" thinking among children. He suspects that such stories lay the groundwork for religious faith, the inculcation of which, he claims, is a worse form of child abuse than sexual molestation.

I suspect that fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale, the one Lewis believed was ingrained in our being. New research from the Université de Montréal and the University of Ottawa indicates that children aren't overly troubled upon learning that Santa is a myth. But the researchers remained puzzled because while children eventually abandon Santa, they keep believing in God. Lewis would say this is because God is real, but Mr. Dawkins fears it is the lasting damage of fairy tales. While Mr. Dawkins stands ironically alongside Puritans in his readiness to ban fairy tales, Christian apologists like Lewis and Chesterton embraced them, precisely because to embrace Christian dogma is to embrace the extrarational.

Today's Christian apologists, by contrast, seek to reason their way to God by means of archaeological finds, anthropological examinations and scientific argumentation. That's all well and good, but it seems to miss a fundamental point illuminated by Chesterton, which is that, ultimately, belief in God is belief in mystery.

I happen to be reading "Orthodoxy" right now and I can testify to its simply stated brilliance.

I can't recall the exact age when I realized that Santa was not the source of our Christmas booty. It probably was a gradual understanding that became clear over the course of a couple of years. I don't remember being especially traumatized by it nor do I think the revelation had any impact on my faith in God.

I can recall a period of time when I was wise to the ways of Santa while JB Doubtless was still a believer (I think he was about sixteen before the light bulb finally went off). It wasn't that hard to keep the illusion up and I actually enjoyed helping preserve his innocence a bit longer. He wasn't completely free of skepticism however and I can remember when he asked our Dad how the logistics of the whole Santa delivery operation were possible. Dad wisely explained that Santa had helpers who used Jeeps to cover the territory. Since JB was a Jeep fanatic this explanation suited his worldview perfectly and eased whatever doubts he may have had.

Another incident related to belief in Santa that I vividly remember took place at church. This too took place after I was in on the game. I don't think it was a Christmas Mass. But there were a lot of children in attendance and the expectation of Christmas near was definitely in the air. Probably the third of fourth Sunday of Advent.

Anyway during the homily the priest essentially came right out and said that Santa didn't exist. Now it's one thing for a kid on the playground to tell you there's no Santa. That same kid probably thought Spider Man was real and liked to eat yellow snow. It was easy to dismiss his claims. But when the priest--the guy one step down from God in kids' very hierarchal view of the world--said that Santa wasn't real it caught peoples' attention.

In this case, it also attracted the ire of my mother. Usually our parents tried to shield us from what they really thought of the clergy. They didn't want to poison our minds or introduce doubts in our fragile faith. After all, these were the men of God and as such they deserved a certain amount of respect and fealty. But this particular padre had crossed the line and I remember leaving church with her cursing his name (which I can't recall) for being such a jackass as to doing something so stupid around Christmas.

These many years later it still seems as if my mother's assessment of the priest's conduct was accurate. What's the harm with letting kids believe in the magic of Santa? It need not be detrimental, but in fact may help that appreciate the true wonder of the ultimate mystery of God.


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