Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Belief is good for you. So where can you buy it?
A favourite stocking-stuffer this season was the slim hardcover Where’s Bin Laden? It’s a Where’s Wally? clone in which the teeming masses writhe across provocative, cat-meat icons of Western decadence like the Eiffel Tower and Sydney Harbour Bridge. Maybe you find him, maybe not, even with the free plastic magnifier. But I say forget bin Laden. He’s not the one with the birthday. Ask yourself this. Have you seen Jesus lately?
Not likely, since each Christmas, like some increasingly ragged pinata, gets a little more of the bejesus knocked out of it. Each year the Chrissie trees are shinier and more abstract, made of something really appropriate like blue light, hanging gold sequins or Ferrero Rocher chocolates. Each year the Santas get more blatantly “ho ho, whadya want, little girl?” and the carols more prozacked. But try finding any magi or messiahs, any angels or myrrh – try finding even a decently descanted and candle-smoked carol service – and you’ll be needing that magnifier.
It’s like we’re frightened. Frightened of doing anything other than the hideously secular. Terrified we might exclude those of different-but-equally-valid-and-meaningful-religions from the Holy Ecumenical Brotherhood of Shopping. Petrified of belief. Like, nobody mention Jesus, OK? Shoppers are timid. Crepuscular creatures, easily scared.
I speak, of course, as an infidel. Mindful, too, that Christmas was pagan before it was Christian. That Saturnalia, Yule and the Mesopotamian Zagmuk all predate Christmas as winter-fest, and that any number of gods and demigods, including Ishtar, El Gabal, Mithra and Deus Sol Invictus, had the 25th as birthing-day well before it was Christ’s.
But pagan is not secular. Paganism at least deifies something, most often the sun. December 25 was chosen (for example, by the Scandinavians for the festival of Jul, or Yule) as the day when the returning sun could first be glimpsed on the horizon. You can imagine the joy.
So sun worship seems like a reasonable first premise, given the ultraviolet-phytoplankton-higher mammal connection. But worship generally – the urge to bow before the awe-ful – is no longer something we do. Even Christianity dwells increasingly on what God can do for us, rather than vice versa. As if we simply cannot contemplate anything more important than us, any star atop our tree.
You might argue, in commercialism’s favour, that money is our worshipful deity, mega-malls our new cathedrals. Money is, after all, reified sunshine (given the aforementioned food chain). But a half-day’s Christmas shopping should be enough to convince you otherwise. Money has power but no feel. No soul.
Not that I care, personally. Believe what you like, as far as I’m concerned. That’s your postmodern right, right? But know this. There’s more than just morality at stake here, or duty. There’s lifestyle.
When you look at old people – not old like us, I mean old old people – you can see it. Belief is good for you. Philip Pullman, author of The Golden Compass, may rage against religion. And it certainly has an embarrassment of atrocities to account for. But it’s also clear, and the gradual transparency of age makes it clearer still, that belief brings inner strength. Further, that this particular strength is more significant and more life-enhancing than the prescribed formula of having your peristalsis, neurons and super-funds all in full working order. This makes belief a lifestyle issue. Even a wellbeing issue. It’s about us so, like, it matters.
But the question then becomes, can belief be done this way? I don’t mean is it right? Is it actually possible? Can you take up belief as you can ice hockey or tropical fish? Uh, I’ll have, hmmm, gimme three parts Buddhism with two parts Hindu, one part Taoist and just a dash of, well, maybe, Judaic? Or maybe Christian, yes, a drop of Christian. Just the Sermon on the Mount, nothing else. Nothing angry or paternalistic. I am so over that.
We presume that yes, we can believe not only what we choose, but because we choose. Postmodernism, after all, is about pluralism, and pluralism brings choice. And, despite its reported demise, postmodernism is everywhere. Like those long-chain hydrocarbons found in breastmilk, postmodernism has infiltrated our every thought and act.
Postmodernism is doctoral theses on Batman and mayors at Mardi Gras. It’s also those 500-speaker, six-at-a-time quasi-scholarly conferences and legitimised gang rape and, yes, Christmas without Christ. So easily does the tolerance of withholding judgment become the sloth of eschewing it; so easily does pluralism become avoidance and the particular become the puree.
Even if, being postmodern, you figure it doesn’t much matter what you believe, as long as you believe something, you still have to decide what it’ll be. This makes it harder, not easier. It’s like being allowed to set your own essay topic at school. First up you think, “Yay! Freedom!” Then you think, “Omigod, freedom.” Six months later you’re still changing the rules every time you hit a snag, and starting over.
This is the paradox, the mystery. Necessity can bring freedom. Putting the Christ back into Xmas may not sort out postmodernism, but it’d sure help get those sixpences back in the pudding.