Christmas 2020 – coming just when we need it the most
In a society increasingly divided by political differences, racial disparities, and economic dislocation, not to mention the COVID pandemic, Christmas arrives at just the right moment. It should help us to look beyond this very troubled moment and focus upon things that are not transitory but eternal.
The 20th century witnessed a profusion of religion without God. Materialism, self-actualization, Marxism, and fascism reign. Now, in the 21st century, many Americans, both on the right and the left have made a false God of politics, viewing those with whom they disagree as “enemies.”
Democracy requires that we are open to differences of opinion and are prepared to work with those who share views contrary to our own.
Christmas should focus our attention on permanent, rather than transitory things.
In this regard, it is interesting to reflect upon the thinking of two unique men, G.K. Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis. They did battle for the Gospel with that most powerful of weapons, the pen.
Chesterton, the journalist, and Lewis, the scholar, differed in manner and style. But their religious vision was much the same, and their writings brought this vision to millions, and still does. Even to those who would never knowingly open a “religious” book.
In the summer of 1987, a seminar was held in Seattle to celebrate the achievements of these two men. In a 1989 book, “G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis: The Riddle of Joy,” 17 notable scholars offer a comprehensive analysis of these two influential writers, each of whom “felt the riddle of the earth and came to think, impossibly, that its name is joy.”
From Chesterton’s Father Brown detective stories to Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, these two Englishmen have had an unprecedented impact. Not only in the English-speaking world but far beyond. In 1954, an administrator in the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States surveyed all of the career missionaries at home and abroad. One of the questions asked was, “What person most influenced your decision to become a missionary? Fifty percent wrote, “C.S. Lewis.”
The connection between Chesterton and Lewis is clear.
Christopher Derrick, who knew them both, notes:
“There was influence between them, but all of it ran in the one direction. It started to run during World War l, when Lewis—-being sick in hospital—-chanced to read a volume of Chesterton’s essays. ‘I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for,’ he wrote later, ‘nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me.’ It wasn’t so strange or inexplicable, since Chesterton already had a habit of making immediate conquests of highly diverse people. Even today…years after his death, he frequently displays a power and privilege which he once attributed to Samuel Johnson, ‘He can walk into the heart without knocking.’”
Chesterton’s “Everlasting Man” played a crucial part in Lewis’ conversion to Christianity.
The two men, however, were quite different. Lewis, the scholar, wrote meticulously. Chesterton wrote chaotically. Lewis, the Oxford don, devoted much time to his medieval studies. Chesterton, the journalist, was very much a man of the world, deeply involved in the political battles of the day.
Christopher Derrick notes
“It is only as writers, of course—-and more precisely, as writers on religious subjects—-that these two men can really be regarded as having a shared vocation and achievement…I’d even go so far as to define their joint achievement as that of two very great translators.”
“There is always a strong case for restating the gospel and the faith in the language of one’s own time—-provided that one does exactly that. The trouble is that some people claim and appear to be doing that necessary task, when in fact they’re doing something radically different. It’s one thing to restate the old faith so as to make it more easily understood , it’s quite another thing to modify the faith so as to make it more easily acceptable…The pattern of much present-day theology …is shaped most crucially by what present-day people want to hear. As in business, the product gets modified to meet consumer demand…now the great merit of both Chesterton and Lewis …is that neither of them fall into that trap…Each was in fact restating the ancient faith in the language of his day, in the rhetorical language of a flamboyant journalist or with the cool lucidity of a scholar, with a thousand new angles and insights but otherwise without modification.”
At a time when, for intellectuals, it took far more courage to defend traditional religion than to mock it, Chesterton declared “The act of defending any of the cardinal virtues has today all the exhilaration of a vice. Moral truisms have become so much disputed that they have begun to sparkle like so many brilliant paradoxes.”
And Chesterton was a master of paradox. To those who insisted on materialism, he wrote,
“…the materialist theory of history, that all politics and ethics are the expression of economics, is a very simple fallacy indeed. It consists simply of confusing the necessary conditions of life with the normal preoccupations of life, that are quite a different thing. It is like saying that because a man can only walk about on two legs, therefore he never walks about except to buy shoes and stockings.”
Ian Boyd, the editor of the Chesterton Review, points out that,
“The religious critique of life which Chesterton presents in all his writings is ultimately based on a belief that God is present in creation through sign and symbol in the center of the most profane realities, it is possible to find God. He seldom wrote about directly religious subjects, but in the events of everyday life or in a piece of chalk or in a city street he found the central religious mystery.”
According to T.S. Eliot in his 1936 obituary of Chesterton in the London Times, Chesterton “did more than any man in his time to maintain the existence of the Christian minority in the modern world.”
Even many who proclaim themselves To be Christian fail to understand that the view of man and the world set forth by Jesus, and the Old Testament prophets who preceded him, and the one which dominates in the modern world, and in many political circles today, are contradictory.
Time for Jesus Rediscovered through Christmas
The British author and editor Malcolm Muggeridge, long an atheist, had a religious conversion while preparing a BBC documentary about the life of Jesus.
In his book “Jesus Rediscovered,” he pointed out that the desire for power and riches in the world—-a desire to which so many are committed—-is the opposite of what Jesus commanded. Indeed, Jesus was tempted by the Devil with the very worldly powers so many seek.
“Finally, the Devil showed Christ all the kingdoms of the world and said: ‘All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will give it.’ All Christ had to do in return was to worship the donor instead of God—-which, of course he could not do. How interesting, though, that power should be at the Devil’s disposal, and only attainable through an understanding with him! Many have thought otherwise, and sought power in the belief that by its exercise they could lead men toward brotherhood and happiness and peace, invariably with disastrous consequences. Always in the end the bargain with the Devil has to be fulfilled—-as any Stalin, Napoleon or Cromwell must testify. I am the light of the world, Christ said, power belongs to darkness.”
At the time of his death in 1990, Muggeridge lamented,
“I firmly believe our civilizations began with the Christian religion and has been sustained and fortified by the values of the Christian religion, by which admittedly most men have not lived, but to which they have assented, and by which the greatest of them have tried to live. The Christian religion and these values no longer prevail, they no longer mean anything to ordinary people. Some suppose you can have a Christian civilization without Christian values. I disbelieve this. I think that the basis of order is a moral order. If there is no moral order there will be no political or social order and we see this happening. This is how civilizations end.”
And yet, despite all of this and the societal divisions we have seen, there is a spiritual yearning in the American society, a feeling that things are not what they should be, a desire to set ourselves and our country on a better path. Jesus told us to love our enemies.
Many Americans today are unable to love those with whom they disagree on one public issue or another.
Christmas speaks to the spiritual vacuum in our lives—but only if we will listen to its message. This holiday season we would do well to reevaluate the real gods in our lives and in the life of our country. Our health and that of America may depend upon such a genuine celebration of Christmas.
Lead Image: The National Christmas Tree is seen at President’s Park, the Ellipse of the White House, Wednesday evening, Dec, 2, 2020, in Washington, D.C. The traditional lighting is featured in the virtual 98th National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony event can be viewed on-demand at thenationaltree.org starting Thursday evening, Dec. 3, 2020 and throughout the holiday season. (Official White House Photo by Joyce N. Boghosian)