“I think consumerism has become a bad religion itself,” Graffin says. “It breaks my heart to think of families that feel like a failure to their kids because they can’t afford to buy expensive gifts. I think that’s a tragedy. We’ve turned Christmas into a consumerism festival. But on the same token, I don’t think it should go back to being about religious piety.”1
These are the words of Greg Graffin, who if you did not know, and I’m guessing that many of you may not know, is the lead vocalist of LA based punk rock band, Bad Religion. Go to the band’s website at your own risk, as you might have guessed, they are not religion friendly, so some of what you see may offend you.
Today I was looking for an unusual version of O Come, O Come Emmanuel on YouTube. When I came across the Bad Religion version,(video at the end of this post) I remembered hearing about it on NPR two years ago. Certain elements of that interview stayed with me. For example, here is NPR’s Rachel Martin asking Bad Religion’s guitarist, Brett Gurewitz a question and his reply.
MARTIN: And these are not secular songs, we should point out though. You could’ve done, you know, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” These are religious Christmas hymns.
GUREWITZ: I would disagree. I think that all of these songs are secular. Even though they have their roots in the pulpit or in the church setting, virtually everyone who celebrates Christmas has heard these songs. And so, it’s not Bad Religion that has made them ironic. It’s kind of a secular society that’s made Christmas ironic.2
You may at this point be wondering why I am writing about an atheist punk rock band that recorded religious Christmas music as an ironic joke of sorts. My first reply would be – why not?
First of all I do not completely disagree with Gurewitz, who was raised Jewish, that secular society has a big hand in making Christmas ironic, at least in the commercial sense. This is not a “war against Christmas” thing, this is – for me anyway – just one of the reasons that we are so divided as a culture. Have you ever watched a news program on TV where the host may be railing on about this so-called “war on Christmas” only to have him or her say, “We’ll be right back with another guest after a word from our sponsor.” At which point you see advertising that includes a very high end automobile with a big red bow on it, and if it were on in mid-to-late November, that ad might have been followed by one for Verizon celebrating “Thanksgetting” instead of Thanksgiving, as well as one for Old Navy where we see Julia Louis Dreyfuss roughing up a tied up Snoop Dogg, determined to get one million dollars from him. So much for keeping Christ in Christmas.
So back to the question of how Christmas has become what it has become. I think that Bad Religion referred to some uncomfortable truths of our lives. And no, this does not mean we need to go all “Benedict Option” 3 (don’t get me started on that one, says Mrs. Grinch, that’s another issue for another day, and not very Catholic to me, but I digress, google it if you must. ). How should we address this as part of our Christian identity? What if we had three ways in which we might be oriented as we make our Advent journey?
The first could be that we make a little time for quiet each day. Oh, easier said than done, right? Well, no time like the present, is there? Perhaps it could be sitting quietly with your coffee or tea first thing in the morning, instead of grabbing your phone or tablet. Maybe it means taking the dog – or just yourself – for a short walk, but not using headphones. Is your Advent Tree up? (I can’t bear to call it the you-know-what tree until we are closer to that day!) Sit and watch the lights twinkle. All of these things could take five short minutes, which would give you five more minutes of silence than you had before. That silence may be how God speaks to us, and how we find our Emmanuel, in powerful ways.
Second, rethink the gift list. Maybe buy fewer gifts. Consider donating money to a regional food bank or pantry, and letting friends know that is how you spent your cash this year, to enrich others. How many candles, hand creams, or whatevers do we need? And people are hungry. Your kids want everything? And I understand the urge to give it to them, but what if some of that time and money went to something more lasting than the next gadget?
Last but not least, seek joy in the everyday moments of life, even the annoying ones. The refrain of the song says “rejoice, rejoice,” but are we really joyful? Joy, not to be confused with happiness, is part of the expectant waiting of this liturgical season. Joy can be found in some unlikely places, but it might require being present and paying attention. Whether it is the first sip of delicious hot tea on a cold day, opening an unexpected holiday card from an old friend, or standing in line, but realizing that for the first time all day that you are not in motion. Hey – your joy could turn out to be the realization that this noisy, harsh rendition of a favorite classic hymn, actually has your foot tapping and your soul humming. You never know, God uses any means necessary, so why not?
So here we have these three ideas, or whatever ideas you may have. Can we join hands and hearts to ply this path of Advent in a meaningful way together? I’m not sure, but with all that great thrashing punk sound as a background, I am ready to jump in. Please, be with me – let us be the ransomed of captive Israel, so that we might rejoice as one. After all, it is Advent – what are we waiting for?
1. Why The Hell Did Bad Religion Make a Christmas Album? Village Voice, 12/6/13
2. Bad Religion Celebrates Christmas, NPR, 12/8/13
3. Posts by Rod Dreher at The American Conservative tagged “Benedict Option”