Should parents collude with the Santa Claus myth?

The Santa Claus myth: deception or harmless fun?

Most parents make their children believe that there is a jolly fat man in a red suit, who lives at the North Pole and comes down in a sleigh every Christmas Eve to give children presents. Most of us have memories of this fun fantasy. We have memories of the making of lists; the excitement, making it difficult to sleep, that Santa was coming in the night; the devastation that Santa didn’t give us the presents we wanted; smarty-pants siblings and classmates telling us that Santa Claus isn’t real, to which we responded either with misery or denial. Or we worked it out for ourselves, feeling proud of our cleverness or disappointed at finding out the truth. We might have deliberately kept that we had worked it out from our parents for a while, to keep the myth going.

I have a rather different story to tell than most others, both amusing and rather embarrassing. I was very interested in science and the idea that belief in God was a delusion when I was ten. But (unlike my younger brother) I still wasn’t convinced that Father Christmas didn’t exist. God? What a load of pre-scientific nonsense; I was far too clever to believe in him. But Father Christmas? Tough one, that. It took an article I read when I was eleven, in the Christmas special issue of the NewScientist, on whether it’s right for parents to deceive their children into believing in the big FC, to finally convince me that it was a myth. Talk about selective credulity.

Father Christmas according to Tim Stanley

The excellent Telegraph journalist and historian Tim Stanley has his own theory on Father Christmas:

The legend of a jolly old fat man who brings children presents has to have some root in reality. My theory is that he is real but he’s also incredibly lazy – so he encouraged the world to think that he doesn’t exist to get adults to do his job for him. If you travelled to the North Pole, you’d find him sitting in his underpants watching the Eastenders Omnibus, chuckling at his luck.

There is, in fact, a sense in which the legend does have some root in reality. The idea of Father Christmas is descended from a fourth-century bishop in what is now Turkey called St. Nicholas. According to Wikipedia, the particular legend that led to the Santa Claus myth was when a father had three daughters but could not afford a proper dowry, or marriage portion, for them, and due to the near-complete lack of work for unmarried women were liable to become prostitutes. St. Nicholas heard of their plight but was too modest to help them in public, so instead secretly threw three purses of money – one for each girl – through a window (or down a chimney, depending on which story you believe).

On the question of whether it’s right for parents, particularly Christian ones, to keep Santa Claus as part of the Christmas experience, well it’s clear that the Santa element can be very good. Father Christmas is a symbol of, and is descended from a legend about, giving, and giving is a central theme of the real Christmas message, with God giving his one and only Son that we might be saved from our sin and have eternal life. I suppose, from a Christian point of view, the Father Christmas element should aid the central meaning of Christmas and not replace it, as it all but has in the post-Christian world.

The other aspect is that it’s very fun. A sense of wonder and belief in what can be seen is a very good thing for children to develop, in a world where what is unseen is seen as less important, less real or non-existent. In 1897, an eight-year-old girl named Virginia Hanlon wrote to the New York paper The Sun, saying that some of her friends had told her there was no such thing as Santa Claus. She received this captivating response, published as an editorial, which I will quote in part here:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge…How dreary would the world be if there were no Santa Claus…There would be no childlike faith, then, no romance to make tolerable this existence.

But can lying to one’s children ever be justified? Michelle Arnold at Catholic Answers argues that the fact that we consider this lying is a vindication of the message of Francis Church (the editorial writer), except that it’s now the adults, not the children, who are victims of “the skepticism of a skeptical age.” We see things as either black or white, literally true or completely false. Perhaps this explains the belief of so many – Christian or not  that the scientific theory of evolution is incompatible with the stories in the first two chapters of Genesis: we find it hard to accept that something can fail to be literally true without being any less true in another sense.

There is of the contention that this doesn’t change the fact that the Santa Claus myth is a direct deception, intended to actually make children believe something that isn’t true, unlike myths which are understood to not be literally true but are supposed to convey a message. The argument is that knowing that, for example, the worlds of imagination in the Narnia and Harry Potter aren’t true, or that witches don’t really fly around in broomsticks, doesn’t necessarily make the books or Halloween less enjoyable (leaving the ethics of Halloween for another time), and therefore it’s not necessary for us to lie to our children for them to have fun.

But do children even draw the same line between imagination and literal truth as we do? Do children who love Halloween really believe that witches fly around on broomsticks? When they play pretend or make-believe games, do they really end up believing what they are pretending? Well, I’m not particularly well-acquainted with small children, but my suspicion (and that of my father, who obviously is) is that they just don’t draw the clear line between genuine belief and imagination that we do. Therefore, instead of believing in these things in the sense that we believe what we read in non-fiction books, they enjoy the fantasy and pretence in stories and, most importantly, they enjoy the luxury of not having to admit to themselves that they are not true in a literal sense.

This probably explains the fact that children do actually enjoy fantasy stories and making believe more than adults do, and perhaps this is what belief in Father Christmas is. Perhaps the transition from believing in Santa to not believing in him is the transition from blurring truth and imagination to separating them – an inevitable and healthy transition that has to start from somewhere. Perhaps the Father Christmas myth is not so much a lie as helping a child to enjoy the stage in life when he doesn’t have to distinguish between myth and reality.

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How to save the church: sincerity or compromise?

The Hitch preferred authenticity to pandering

I have not yet watched the documentary film Collision, which follows the late Christopher Hitchens and the conservative American pastor and theologian Douglas Wilson on a series of debates about Christianity. However, I watched this video of the rather funny ending of the film. Being interviewed with Wilson in the back of a taxi, Hitchens recounts discussing with Richard Dawkins this question: If there were only one remaining religious person in the world, would you try and convince that person to be an atheist?

Hitchens’ answer was that he wouldn’t. And he says it’s not just because then there would be no-one left to argue with, although that’s certainly one reason. But there’s something else, he said, a gut feeling he has that he just wouldn’t do it. And, he says, “the incredulity with which he [Dawkins] looked at me stays with me still.”

I think there’s definitely a difference between Hitchens and Dawkins. Professor Dawkins, in The God Delusion, praises the extremely liberal Episcopalian Bishop John Selby Spong, whose belief system incorporates New Age elements and who doesn’t believe in the literal truth of the resurrection. “Bishop Spong…” he writes, “is a nice example of a liberal bishop whose beliefs are so advanced as to be unrecognisable to the vast majority of those who call themselves Christian.” Note the snobbish and patronising use of the word ‘advanced’ to imply that the beliefs of more conservative men of faith are somehow less advanced. And, though I certainly wish Bishop Spong’s views were unrecognisable to most self-identifying Christians, when you consider that, according to a 2012 IPSOS Mori poll done on request of the Richard Dawkins Foundation, only 49% of ‘census-Christians’ even believe Jesus is the Son of God, that statement is unfortunately false, as I’m sure Professor Dawkins now realises.

Another example of Richard Dawkins’ lack of respect for brilliant orthodox Christian theologians is this article he wrote for the Guardian‘s Comment Is Free on why he refused to debate with the Christian philosopher and theologian William Lane Craig. Dr Craig is one of the most respected apologists for the Christian faith in the world, a person whom both Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris have been happy to debate, yet Professor Dawkins had the nerve to say that a debate with him “would look good on your CV, not so good on mine.”

He goes on to say that he won’t debate Dr Craig because of his defence of the “genocide” against the Canaanites which God demands in Deuteronomy 7. Of course, this is one of the more disturbing passages of the Bible and it is very unsettling to find God commanding something so apparently morally wrong. But how do you respond to something like this? Do you do as the preachers endorsed by Professor Dawkins in the article do, and attempt to brush these difficult parts of the Bible under the carpet, dismissing them as “metaphor” or “myth,” and mumbling, “well we don’t take that literally anymore”? Or do you, as an apologist, actually do your job (the Greek for ‘apologetics’ means ‘verbal defence’) and seek to defend the Bible and the Christian faith, and to incorporate passages like these into a consistent set of ideas? If God is all-good, all-knowing and all-just, then maybe it’s our imperfect understanding of morality and justice that’s at fault, not God’s, and we need to try and see where we’ve gone wrong.

But it’s evident that Professor Dawkins prefers the evasive approach to the consistent, engaging approach. Contrast that with what Christopher Hitchens says in this intriguing article about his debates with Douglas Wilson:

Wilson isn’t one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just “metaphors.” He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn’t waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he “allows” it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing.

For all his faults, Hitchens strongly believed in sincerity, authenticity and intellectual integrity; unlike Dawkins he preferred the Christians who are consistent and who actually believe what the Bible says. Another example of this is when he was asked why he didn’t attack Larry Taunton of the Fixed Point Foundation in his debates with him. His answer: “Because you believe it.”

Now I don’t want to be disrespectful to Bishop Spong, and I’m not arguing that liberal Christians necessarily hold their views due to a lack of sincerity. I admittedly know very little about Bishop Spong and I’m sure he is very intelligent, thoughtful and knowledgeable person, despite his very heterodox beliefs. I suppose the point is that most people, like Christopher Hitchens, are more likely to be engaged by Christians whose worldview, ethics and lifestyle are actually different to those of the world. This is shown by this article in the Christian Post, which tells about why the young atheists that the aforementioned Larry Taunton has interviewed left Christianity. One imagines that American young people would be most turned off by the judgementalism, fundamentalism and scientific illiteracy of some on the Christian right, but although that plays a part (in another survey of young American non-Christians, the top two adjectives that people used to describe Christians were ‘anti-gay’ and ‘judgemental’), I think the responses of Taunton’s interviewees show that even in America, lukewarm and pandering Christianity is at least as damaging. And half a century or more of modernisation and liberalisation of the Church of England has not stopped the sharp decline of Christianity, especially among the young.

Of course, an orthodox Christian will have many more disagreements with the average unbeliever than a purely nominal Christian, and adapting the style and delivery of evangelism to fit with the times is important. But I do think unbelievers have more respect for Christians who are different from the world and actually believe and try to adhere to what the Bible actually teaches. They admire the courage and integrity it takes to live a Christian life that clearly conflicts with the culture of the day. They are also arguably more attracted (at least in the long-term) to this kind of life than the nominal-Christian life, because it’s different and therefore more interesting and compelling. Conversely, if the church gives into pressure to “move with the times” and adopt beliefs that clearly contradict the Bible then people think, in many cases rightly, that it’s not really a genuine change of belief; they just think that they can convert more people by compromising the core tenets of Christianity.

But this attempt backfires because, though unbelievers in general are not like either Hitchens or Dawkins (they tend to greet religion more with indifference than hostility), they are more like Hitchens in that they respect believers who have integrity, rather than those who are willing to compromise their beliefs.

The amazing Shane Claiborne

I’ve just watched at my youth group a DVD of a talk by Shane Claiborne, an amazing guy, a radical Christian who believes in actually doing stuff, actually living as a Christian. I saw only about the last fifteen minutes of his speech at the Greenbelt festival last week, but that was enough to know that this was a person who makes the kind of speeches that are challenging and discomforting in a good way – that really make you think about yourself and your place in the world.

He’s from Tennessee and, you might agree if you watch the clip below,  he looks and sounds a bit like Shaggy from Scooby Doo. He’s also pretty funny. But far more than that, his speeches are so impassioned and insightful, filled not just with thought-provoking ideas to make you ponder but with the kind of things that really make you feel like you should act, like you should actually change your life as a result of hearing them.

He draws on a lot of his personal experiences from working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, in Baghdad during the Iraq War and against the outrageous laws against feeding the homeless in Philadelphia, and some of  the things he said were really humbling and eye-opening. About how the more you have, the less you are. About how, when a house was donated to Mother Teresa, she told them to immediately get rid of all the hot water, because the poor don’t have hot water, so she wouldn’t either. Or her deformed feet, after years of always choosing the worst of the shoes donated to the family, so that no-one was stuck with the worst pair. With her deformed feet, she bore the mark of years of loving her neighbour, of putting other people before herself.

But clearly not all Christians are like Mother Teresa. According to Claiborne, a Gallup poll in the US showed that the 3 words that most young non-Christians in America associated with Christians were: 1. anti-gay 2. judgemental and 3. hypocritical. That’s disturbing. The fact that it’s not really a surprise makes it even more disturbing. And though people’s perceptions of Christians and what Christians are actually like are not always the same thing, they must have got these ideas from somewhere. And it might not be quite so bad here in the UK, but it’s still not great.

The Bible tells us that love is the most important quality for a Christian to have.  Whatever the top result would be in a similar survey here, it wouldn’t be love.  But Claiborne’s call is for us Christians to rise up, to be how we were made to be and to be a proper reflection of God’s love to the world. This is what Jesus is going to judge us on, as in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats – “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” It’s the people who truly love God and their neighbour who do these things, and it’s these kinds of people who will inherit God’s kingdom.

Anyway, here’s a video of Claiborne speaking, so you can hear for yourself. I haven’t watched it myself, but with the title “Another Way of Doing Life”,  it’s hopefully quite similar to the two (or one and a bit) speeches I’ve seen.

Will there be nations in heaven? Different languages?

Firstly, sorry for not posting since April. That commitment to blog regularly didn’t last very long, did it? But anyway, here I am again and after getting back into reading other WordPress blogs recently, I’m hoping to now get back into my own blog too.

I like languages. I do French and Spanish at school and after having been on two exchange trips this summer (one in France, one in Spain), I have a renewed interested in linguistics. I have started randomly translating song lyrics into French and Spanish in my head, reading up on Esperanto and Greenlandic, editing foreign-language Wikipedias and I’ve now actually started to invent my own language, called Negrapinut (which means “language of the black country” in case you’re interested). Sounds nerdy, right? But hey.

Like many others, I do also have a certain sense of pride in being British. Much has been said about how the royal wedding last year combined with the Jubilee and Olympics/Paralympics this year have renewed a sense of patriotism in Britain that perhaps we were lacking before. And you only have to look at Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union and the DR Congo to see that proper nations where people have a shared identity are stronger than man-made unions or countries made up of loads of different tribes.  (Ok, the Soviet Union was pretty strong while it lasted, but it inevitably collapsed eventually, just as Yugoslavia inevitably split up into its original nations.)

However, I have in the past actually wondered whether nationhood (if that’s a word) and different languages are things that we should actually thank God for, given that they were meant to be a curse put on us because of the Tower of Babel. My conclusion is to thank God for all the good things that have resulted from them, the shared identity that they give people and the pleasure that different cultures and languages give me and many others, while acknowledging their origin and that, though we might have them in heaven, we might not do because we won’t need them.

Will there be different languages, and different nations and cultures, in heaven? I don’t know. I suppose it’s possible. The diversity of the different cultures and languages in the world bring a lot of pleasure to people. Patriotism often brings people together with a shared identity, and allegiance to one’s nation can be a force for good if people are inspired to serve their country. And as there will be no sin in heaven, the idolatry and the bad things that can result from nationalism wouldn’t happen.

However, I’m slightly leaning towards the no side. The fact that these things were meant to be a curse as a result of us building the Tower of Babel kind of makes me think that there would be no languages or cultures in a perfect world. And if everyone in heaven will be part of a perfect family of God’s children, what extra kind of shared identity will we need? Once we are with God and are fully experiencing his love together, will we really need the pleasure of the different cultures and languages we have now? And once we have fully matured as Christians and become wise, will we really need to find wisdom in other cultures?

What do you think? Any comments would be welcome.