One More on Advent: the Spirit of Santa, Miracle on 34th Street, Bridesmaids, AA, the Beatitudes, and G. K. Chesterton’s “Unreasonable” Hope

Hope is a strange invention—
A Patent of the Heart—
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out—

— Emily Dickinson

Happy Christmas Eve folks! Christmas is finally almost here, but it turns out I had a few assorted Advent thoughts I still wanted to spew out at you. Here goes…

I love the holidays, gaudy kitsch and all. I love Santa, elves, reindeer, creches, Advent calendars, menorahs, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, Christmas sweaters, Christmas lights, Christmas markets, Christmas movies, gingerbread houses, stockings, caroling, mistletoe, holiday cards, gift-giving, sledding, skating, the same 30 songs played everywhere on repeat … and even candy canes. I hear Krampus and Belsnickel are catching on these days. I’m not big on Elf-on-the-Shelf, but I’m sure we’ll do Grinch-in-a-Pinch whenever we have kids.

I think it’s all glorious fun. But given my religious bent, I’ll admit that I do sometimes feel a little uneasy when the St. Nick myth takes on theological dimensions—to the point where faith in God and Santa are essentially conflated. Christians and non-Christians alike do this all the time. Countless feel-good Christmas movies hinge upon whether the characters truly “believe” that Santa is real, and tend to reward those with the most childlike and unquestioning faith in the supernatural. I suppose there may be parallels for children between belief in Santa and in a benevolent God, but if they ultimately learn to conflate the two—conceiving of God as a kind of jolly genie-in-the-sky, ready to grant our every wish if we only “believe” hard enough—then I’m afraid they’ll be thoroughly disappointed and may well throw all religious faith out the window someday, or worse, live their lives in the thrall of a ridiculous prosperity-gospel kind of superstition. That’s just not how God operates in our world, and it’s important that kids (and adults)—religious or not—learn to recognize the difference between fairy tales and religious ones.

All that being said, I do believe in a fundamentally benevolent universe, in a God who loves us and showers grace over all of creation—the grace of our very lives, the very air we breathe, water we drink, food we eat, flesh we inhabit. In that sense, I suppose you might say I believe in a kind of “Santa ideal,” that is, in the theme of grace that Santa broadly represents (minus the moral score-keeping). That vague thematic overlap is usually what I try to keep in mind when I’m enjoying a Christmas movie or playing along with all the other cheerful pageantry of the holidays.

There’s a great scene from the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street that illustrates this thematic connection well. Fred and Doris are arguing about whether it makes sense to “believe” (in) this crazy Kris Kringle guy who is being put on trial by the State of New York to determine if he belongs in an insane asylum or not. Here’s the key bit of dialogue:

FRED: Faith is believing in things when common sense tells you not to. It’s not just Kris that’s on trial. It’s everything he stands for. It’s kindness, joy, love, and all other intangibles.

DORIS: Fred, you’re talking like a child. You’re living in a realistic world! Those lovely intangibles aren’t worth much. You don’t get ahead that way.

FRED: That all depends on what you call getting ahead. […] Someday, you’re going to find out that your way of facing this realistic world just doesn’t work. And when you do, don’t overlook those lovely intangibles. You’ll discover they’re the only things that are worthwhile.

I hate to admit it, but I think there’s a lot of religious truth in that passage, even though it’s clearly grounded in the Santa Claus myth. The “common sense” things of this world are never ultimately enough for us—we humans always need more than “tangibles” to live on. We live by faith and not by sight. We need things to believe in that don’t always make obvious, rational, practical sense, spiritual as well as material food. We need faith, hope, and love.

The hope of Christmas, of a God who came to save us in the flesh-and-blood person of Jesus, is fundamentally an irrational hope—it entirely goes against “common sense.” It is the kind of hope that sustains us when no other hope remains—the hope that even in the deepest darkness there is light to be found, that even in death there is life.

I wrote about this kind of hope in my recent Springsteen post—this idea that it’s only when the hope we have in things of this world—work, politics, influence, intelligence, health, wealth, stuff, pleasure, technology, achievement, entertainment, etc.—prove to be empty or insufficient, that the hope of the Gospel really starts to mean something.

Much of the point of the Advent season is to remind us of how lost we are without “Christmas,” that is, without help from beyond. It’s basically the seemingly nonsensical upside-down truth of AA and the other 12-step programs. As the first two steps say, “We admitted we were powerless” and came to believe that only “a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.” In the symbolic descent into darkness, Advent reminds us of that powerlessness—and ultimate need for rescue. It brings us here to the “rock-bottom” of Christmas Eve.

There’s a great scene in the movie Bridesmaids where Kristen Wiig’s character Annie goes to see her ditzy mom at a moment when she feels like her life is falling apart, and her mom promptly breaks into a kind of ham-fisted pep talk based on her experiences in AA. Here’s the gist:

MOM: There is this one story I’ve just got to tell you. […] This gentleman who started blow-jobbing to get crack. His name is Marvin Johnson—

ANNIE: Mom, anonymous. […]

MOM: Marvin J. Whatever. […] Well, he became a gay prostitute. And he realized that he had hit his bottom. And I have been thinking, honey, that maybe this is your bottom. I’m telling you, hitting bottom is a good thing. Because there’s nowhere to go but up.

It’s all meant to sound rather flippant in the movie, but of course there’s truth there. It’s basically the insane upside-down truth of the Beatitudes: Blessed are those who’ve got nothing left to lose, no legs left to stand on, no safety net to fall back on, no reputation to tarnish, no bootstraps to pull themselves up by, no practical reasons to hope … for they shall experience God’s grace. And they shall experience it as grace. It’s a crazy idea, but it’s what Christmas—and Christianity as a whole—is all about. Love through confession. Strength through weakness. Hope through despair. Life through death. Freedom through helpless trust in a Higher Power.

Anyway, all of this brings me to one of my favorite pieces of writing on the subject of hope, which I recently rediscovered. It’s a passage, or really three passages, from G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics (1905). Together, these basically highlight what, to me, is so vital about the “unreasonable” hope of Christianity, of Christmas, of the Gospel. The third is by far the most relevant and meaningful to me, but here are all three:

Passage 1:

[Much of the best ancient] literature is all in praise of the weak. The rude old tales are as tender to minorities as any modern political idealist. The rude old ballads are as sentimentally concerned for the under-dog […] [T]hey had only two kinds of songs. The first was a rejoicing that the weak had conquered the strong, the second a lamentation that the strong had […] conquered the weak. For this defiance of the status quo, this constant effort to alter the existing balance, this premature challenge to the powerful, is the whole nature and inmost secret of the psychological adventure which is called man. It is his strength to disdain strength. The forlorn hope is not only a real hope, it is the only real hope of mankind.

Passage 2:

Every man, however brave, who begins by worshipping violence, must end in mere timidity. Every man, however wise, who begins by worshipping success, must end in mere mediocrity. This strange and paradoxical fate is involved, not in the individual, but in the philosophy, in the point of view. It is not the folly of the man which brings about this necessary fall; it is his wisdom. The worship of success is the only one out of all possible worships of which this is true, that its followers are foredoomed to become slaves and cowards. […] When the test of triumph is men’s test of everything, they never endure long enough to triumph at all. As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is a mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength at all. Like all the Christian virtues, it is as unreasonable as it is indispensable. It was through this fatal paradox in the nature of things that all these modern adventurers come at last to a sort of tedium and acquiescence. They desired strength; and to them to desire strength was to admire strength; to admire strength was simply to admire the status quo. They thought that he who wished to be strong ought to respect the strong. They did not realize the obvious verity that he who wishes to be strong must despise the strong.

Passage 3:

The real difference between Paganism and Christianity is perfectly summed up in the difference between the pagan, or natural, virtues, and those three virtues of Christianity which the Church of Rome calls virtues of grace. The pagan, or rational, virtues are such things as justice and temperance, and Christianity has adopted them. The three mystical virtues which Christianity has not adopted, but invented, are faith, hope, and charity. Now much easy and foolish Christian rhetoric could easily be poured out upon those three words, but I desire to confine myself to the two facts which are evident about them. The first evident fact […] is that the pagan virtues, such as justice and temperance, are the sad virtues, and that the mystical virtues of faith, hope, and charity are the gay and exuberant virtues. And the second evident fact, which is even more evident, is the fact that the pagan virtues are the reasonable virtues, and that the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity are in their essence as unreasonable as they can be.

As the word “unreasonable” is open to misunderstanding, the matter may be more accurately put by saying that each one of these Christian or mystical virtues involves a paradox in its own nature, and that this is not true of any of the typically pagan or rationalist virtues. Justice consists in finding out a certain thing due to a certain man and giving it to him. Temperance consists in finding out the proper limit of a particular indulgence and adhering to that. But charity means pardoning what is unpardonable, or it is no virtue at all. Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all. And faith means believing the incredible, or it is no virtue at all.

It is somewhat amusing, indeed, to notice the difference between the fate of these three paradoxes in the fashion of the modern mind. Charity is a fashionable virtue in our time; it is lit up by the gigantic firelight of Dickens. Hope is a fashionable virtue to-day […] But faith is unfashionable, and it is customary on every side to cast against it the fact that it is a paradox. Everybody mockingly repeats the famous childish definition that faith is “the power of believing that which we know to be untrue.” Yet it is not one atom more paradoxical than hope or charity. Charity is the power of defending that which we know to be indefensible. Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate. It is true that there is a state of hope which belongs to bright prospects and the morning; but that is not the virtue of hope. The virtue of hope exists only in earthquake and eclipse. It is true that there is a thing crudely called charity, which means charity to the deserving poor; but charity to the deserving is not charity at all, but justice. It is the undeserving who require it, and the ideal either does not exist at all, or exists wholly for them. For practical purposes it is at the hopeless moment that we require the hopeful man, and the virtue either does not exist at all, or begins to exist at that moment. Exactly at the instant when hope ceases to be reasonable it begins to be useful.

I know Chesterton’s writing is a bit bombastic and full of itself, but I think he’s getting at a really fundamental truth here, which is the paradox of the Advent season itself. What makes Advent so hopeful is precisely the darkness, precisely the disillusionment. It spotlights the immense need at the heart of human life—the God-shaped hole within us all. For Christians, Jesus is precisely the “hopeful man” who comes to us in the “hopeless moment.” That’s the story of Christmas. It is not, of course, the story of Santa. But to the extent that Santa represents not moral judgment but the grace of real “charity,” real unconditional love—and its unexpected inbreaking on our dreary lives—then it’s a story I can get behind, even if, you know, just thematically speaking. Happy Christmas Eve, y’all!

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