Ghost of Advent Present
Why are Christmas stories such as Frank Capra’s movie It’s a Wonderful Life and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, so popular on television in this season while American culture seems so often to contradict their messages?
We seem horrified by the prospect of a vulgar, self-serving and brutal Pottersville. We are repelled by the unreformed Ebenezer Scrooge saying that the struggling poor and sick should die and decrease the surplus population. Yet, a sizable proportion of the American population, including a bunch of Christians, often support policies that tend to advance the very agendas they seem to loathe when they see them dramatized.
Are such Christmas stories merely sentimental, idealistic and naive?
This seems to be the cynical take on things. The cynic will tell us that a single human life can’t prevent a town from going bad; a person can’t really be changed, converted or transformed from selfish to selfless. And, so what if a person is transformed? What difference does that make? Tiny Tim would probably die anyway.
A Presbyterian pastor I knew and respected greatly, the late David Pittenger, once called into question the criticism someone had of “do-gooders.” David asked, “Would you as a Christian prefer ‘do-badders?’”
David was as sophisticated an ethical thinker as you’ll meet. He understood how ideology and high idealism can get in the way of making wise decisions. David was a student of Reinhold Niebuhr, and a proponent of the ethics of “Christian Realism.”
But David was also aware that if our practical decisions do not reflect the substance of our faith, we aren’t really acting as disciples of Jesus Christ. Whatever we call ourselves. The Bible has a name for us when our actions don’t match our values: hypocrites. Or maybe hypocrite isn’t the right word. Maybe there should be a different word to describe us when our values are in conflict and it’s hard or impossible to make them harmonize.
Late night television is occupied by Capra and Dickens. And there’s a Christmas ghost already haunting the halls of my house.
It comes around late at night and asks “Why don’t we live up to the stories we love?”