Annoyed by plump plastic Santas perched on suburban lawns, I was suddenly struck by the relevance of my scholarship to cultural conceptions of Christmas. In my November CSR blog, I discussed the need for Christians to avoid an “economy of exchange” in their vocabularies about salvation, and this time of year we can’t help but see how “exchangism” is nurtured by tales of Santa, who rewards those who behave the right way: the quid pro quo that informs most religions. One plastic Santa near my house actually has the words “Believe” written over the gifts in his sleigh, as though to say that belief gets you consumer products in exchange. Ironically, Christians who repudiate the idea that “all religions lead to the same God” nevertheless make Christianity sound like most other religions when they preach that one gets salvation in exchange for belief.
Joining Santa on the sleigh are promoters of Docetism, the heresy I aligned with Christian film scholarship in my October blog. The name based on a Greek word that means to seem, Docetists held that Jesus only seemed to be human, an illusion that gets reinforced at Christmas. Traditional heart-warming images of “gentle Jesus meek and mild” have subverted the amazement we should feel over the outrageous fact that Creator God, who sustains the universe, entered into history by taking the form of a vulnerable baby that pooped and cried and burped and teethed. As far as Docetists are concerned, a pious Christian would never use the word “pooped” in a sentence that contains the name of God. Indeed, Marcion, a second-century Christian Bishop, regarded the Incarnation as “a disgrace to God” because the human body is “stuffed with excrement.”1
Dorothy L. Sayers, introduced in my September blog, believed that dogma about the Incarnation should knock our socks off. In a 1938 essay called “The Dogma is the Drama,” she wrote, “Let us, in Heaven’s name, drag out the Divine Drama from under the dreadful accumulation of slipshod thinking and trashy sentiment heaped upon it, and set it on an open stage to startle the world into some sort of vigorous reaction. If the pious are the first to be shocked, so much the worse for the pious.” She did, indeed, shock the pious, many of whom seem to prefer the comfort of what she called “that Docetic and totally heretical Christology which denies the full Humanity of Our Lord.”
Docetism is still alive and well, as I discovered in my early years as a Christian college professor. As recounted in Subversive: Christ, Culture, and the Shocking Dorothy L. Sayers, “I got in trouble with a parent of one of my Christian college students because I mentioned, while teaching the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, that Jesus was tempted by lust. Incensed, the parent called my department chair, demanding that the college fire me for such blasphemy, her daughter evidently unaware that I was alluding to a famous verse: ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning’ (Heb 4: 15).” Fortunately, my department chair was more committed to Christian orthodoxy than to pleasing parents, and she handled the controversy with aplomb.
Sayers generated far more controversy than I did. She, in fact, caused one of the biggest religious scandals in 20thcentury England due to BBC radio plays about the Incarnation. Wanting her 1940s listeners to understand that Jesus was born into history, not into the Bible, she refused to use King James English for the plays, having her working-class disciples speak the working-class slang of her era. Worse, some of it was American slang! Christians all over England set up a censorship campaign, not only writing letters to Winston Churchill and the Archbishop of Canterbury demanding the plays be taken off the air, but also sending Sayers hate mail and threatening phone calls. One protester suggested that the Fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942 was God’s revenge for the broadcasts. Talk about an economy of exchange!
Fortunately, Sayers refused to back down. And, as a result, thousands of people who would not normally listen to religious programming tuned in to the radio plays simply to relish something that had shocked conservative Christians, never anticipating that they themselves would became shocked—although for very different reasons. Due to Sayers’s colloquial language, they finally understood the radical implications of the Incarnation: if the tiny babe, born in a manger, was both fully human and fully divine, that means God was murdered on the cross. It knocked the empty stockings off their Christmas mantles.
Committed to the subversive message of the Incarnation, Sayers addressed the problem of “Father Christmas,” who was the Santa Claus of her era and location. As she suggested in a letter to someone at the BBC, when people go through difficult times in their lives, all too many simply “cry aloud to the Father-Christmas-God who was the only God they had ever heard of”: a God that operates according to the economy of exchange that grounds most religions. She then proceeds to follow up with the shocking truth of the Incarnation: “God was not in the nursery, handing out presents to good boys—He was on the cross beside them.”