Bah, Humbug: Cynicism Season's New Tradition

by David Hines

There is a growing tradition of being cynical about Christmas. Dickens' Scrooge set the pattern, and a measure of how cynical New Zealanders are this year is the fact that even a few Christmas cards now feature Scrooge's line: "bah, humbug."

They join the growing number of cynical cards over the past few years. A quick scan of stationers' shelves shows these cards outnumber by about five to one any cards with Jesus, wise men or shepherds.

When it comes to celebrations, the traditional Christmas is still in business. There are still good turnouts for carol services and concerts such as Handel's Messiah and so on.

But in the community generally a growing number of people are not Christians and have no wish to be part of a scene which assumes that everyone wants to celebrate the birth of Christ. It would be arrogant for the Churches to assume that others should give the same emphasis to "the festive season" that they do.

Knocking religion is not new. For me there was a delicious irony in the fact that the most full-blooded cynicism about religious celebrations I have heard this Christmas was in an Anglican church.

In a setting of church music, robed officials, arched ceilings and incense a poem was read: "I hate, I despise your festivals," it said, "and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies

"Take away from me the noise of your psalms;
   I will not listen to the melody of your harps

"Woe to those who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp,
   and like David improvise on instruments of music;
who drink wine from bowls,
   and anoint themselves with the finest oils."

Parts of this poem have often been read in churches because of its emphasis on justice. Its main theme, however, is not justice but "bah humbug," an anger at people who believe God is on their side whatever they do.

And the insult to religious feelings is even stronger when you realise that the poet has made God the spokesman for his own opposition to religious celebrations. The preacher in the church I attended that Sunday noted that this was a tough lesson, and I looked forward to what he would say about it in the sermon. He dodged it and preached instead about the love of Jesus.

But the committee which picked this lesson to be read in the Christian churches round the world that Sunday had a valid point to make. Plenty of people in the community are critical of worship. What if God too is a cynic, someone who is unimpressed with religious humbug? And that must surely include Christian religious humbug at Christmas.

God and Scrooge an interesting couple

The writer of the poem was Amos, a seasonal worker who lived in the northern Hebrew state of Israel around 750 BC. Religion was strong in his time, but sentimental and superstitious. The Assyrian Army was advancing toward Israel and its neighbours but, following a long period of prosperity and peace, the people thought they were God's favourites and that this made them spear-proof.

Amos accused these worshippers of arrogance and (using his skull radio?) predicted their state would be wiped out. God would use the Assyrians as his hatchet-men.

Making allowances for poetic licence, he was right. The disaster came in 722 BC after a series of coups. Amos probably didn't live long enough to see it, but in hindsight he was honoured for his foresight and his speeches became part of holy writ, for Jews and then for Christians.

A gutsy poem. And a reminder to Christian people not to presume that God is on their side; a reminder for them and that includes me to respect people from other faiths, and people of no faith.

But Amos is pretty one-sided himself and it would be overstating the point to give the whole season over to cynicism. Part of the reason for the popularity of Christmas as a community event is that it does catch up both religious and secular goodwill, and the longing for a high point of hope, hospitality and friendship.

A good use of cynicism would be to use it to make sure the celebration really achieves these purposes. Gift-giving gets out of hand, but widespread generosity is too good a tradition to drop. How could it be made more relevant?

Hospitality gets out of hand, but is also a good tradition. Jesus (cynically) described himself as a glutton and drunkard, because he was so sociable compared with some other religious leaders.

Celebration of the baby Jesus, too, can be overdone. Christianity has at times been a public menance, from persecution of minorities to moral arrogance. A number of Christians still think they have a hotline to God, and people on the receiving end of this kind of attitude can hardly be expected to want to join in praising its founder.

But it would be prejudice to apply that criticism to all church members, many of whose faith is genuine, public-spirited and helpful.

They would be false to themselves not to celebrate the birth of Christ, just as it would be false to Maori people, or to immigrants or any other ethnic group not to celebrate their identity.

And if they can also celebrate in a way that catches up the wider community, who can begrudge them the fact that once a year the Church actually gets its public relations right.

But they should not begrudge us the right to differ, or to join in Christian celebrations selectively.

A dash of cynicism is part of democracy. It is also part of the Jewish-Christian tradition.

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David Hines is a Herald subeditor and Methodist lay preacher.
This article is copyright to the New Zealand Herald, and used by permission.
It was published first in the 24th December 1997 edition.