Thursday, December 22, 2011

Slapping Jesus

Science proves the Shroud of Turin is real! (Oh, wait, no it doesn't.)

This are the competing contentions of twinned articles in the Telegraph. Of mild interest on themselves, they are a window onto a more general nuisance, namely the routine use of Christian holy days to sell newspapers and score political points.

Every year, around Christmas and Easter, the news-magazines slap Jesus on their covers, in the form of some arresting graphic (the manger surrounded by members of Congress; the risen Christ with advertising logos where the nail- and spear-marks ought to be) and accompanied by some catchy headline which suggests that maybe some of the supposed experts (scientists, historians, even theologians) don't believe the same things that you do.

It is as predictable as clockwork, and scarcely more interesting to watch.

This strategy, of course, depends upon a particular social setting for its effectiveness. We live in an intellectual world in which many of the central claims of Christianity have been subject to about three centuries of critical examination, and yet continue to exercise a deep influence upon the collective consciousness. Were the first of these things not true, there would be no latent controversy to arouse, no sleeping dog to poke in the ribs; were not the second, nobody would care when the dog began to bark.

But as it is, the semi-annual Jesus-slapping ritual is a marvelous way to remind society at large of its divided mind, and of the particular influence of one religion upon that mind. With a single headline, the savvy editor can get blood flowing in the hearts of both the passionate believer and the militant secularist. With an article sufficiently heavy on intimation and light on straightforward reporting, it is possible to leave both parties with the sense that they are under attack, and need to defend themselves. It changes nobody's opinions, but it gives everybody something to complain about. (Much like the average parish Christmas pageant, but we digress.)

In recent years, the news-magazines have been easily outpaced by more volatile outlets. The specious idea of a "War on Christmas," for example, is the work of cable-news hosts and Republican Congressmen. (How specious is it? In our society, one might as well imagine a banker, looking out from his executive dining room at the huddle of insect-sized protesters below, complaining about a War on Capitalism.) At the same time, the secularist grinches of Santa Monica have chosen this particular time of year to place anti-religious placards on public property, to prevent those awful Christians from wishing anybody a Merry Christmas.

All of this, needless to say, is a sideshow, staged by the cynical for the entertainment of the vulgar. More sober thinkers have always recognized that the battle over symbols is, as Tom Chivers says in his anti-Shroud opinion piece, "undignified":
The intelligent faithful don't need trinkets like this to justify their belief, surely?
Of course not; nor do they need their Ten Commandments carved in marble outside a courthouse, or Nativity scenes plastered in public parks. By the same token, neither do atheists need to use municipal property to attack somebody else's religion. These may -- arguably -- be among the privileges of a free and open society, but are hardly elemental human rights on par with the actual freedom of conscience.

Worse yet, the various forms of Jesus-slapping undermine the genuine civility which lubricates, or ought to lubricate, the machinery of civil society. The truth, evident to a moment's reflection, is that the co-existence of those with different beliefs (including those who claim to have none at all) ought to be the jewel in the crown of a democratic nation. More than that, the easy and opportunistic division of those with different beliefs into warring camps is a trick worthy of the British Raj, or their successors in central Asian tyranny.

In fact, not only can communities professing different beliefs co-exist, they can cooperate, and often do so quite naturally. Even those who disagree about, say, the hypostatic union can find common ground regarding highways and tax policy. Surely, reflective Christians and reflective atheists are able to recognize that a civil-rights regime which protects one must, by definition, protect the other. And so forth forever.

Slapping Jesus in public is, no doubt, better than slapping each other. He can take it. But it would be more honorable, more dignified -- and for Christians, a more fitting acknowledgment of the Incarnation -- to give up the slapping, and embrace not just our common humanity, but the duties and responsibilities that come with our common citizenship.

Or, in the case of the news-magazine, to stop baiting us and actually report some news.

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