Friday, December 20, 2019

#3 - The Sadness Of NPR Christmas

This is one of the most-visited because I have pushed it hard over several Christmases. So sue me. I think I was on to something.

Update 2018: Because of the discussion of Unitarians, and Richard Johnson's link in the comments to a blog post complaining about Garrison Keillor's treatment of them, I thought I would bring forward this post from 2006 (reprinted 2012) and another from 2007, below. They aren't about Unitarians, but do touch on the idea of who we criticise, and whether it is affectionate or not.  The Unitarian pastor at Richard's link has picked up that Keillor, in writing about Unitarians and Christmas, is no longer being kind. I remember that essay and its controversy when it came out, and it was surprisingly traditionalist about Christianity for Keillor, and I wondered what had come over him, climbing all over Jews and Unitarians like that.  One would expect him to be closer to the other side of the controversy. Theologically and culturally, he probably was (is). Yet he was a professional nostalgist, and those groups had been changing the mix at Christmas for a long time. He still had affection for the Christmases of his youth, as he remembered them.

I am not impressed with the Unitarian pastor's assertions, BTW, though she does seem like a nice enough person.  What Unitarians were like 150-200 years ago is irrelevant to today, far less relevant than for churches with more stable doctrine. Early Unitarians still had a lot of Jesus going on, they just defined him as not a part of any Trinity. Also, you will note that she was fine with Keillor making fun of other groups for years - he turned bitter around the early 90's, so she had been okay with a lot of his venom - but only drew the line when it was her own group. Well, we all tend to be like that.  But we should try to be better, also disliking unfair criticism about people who aren't us.

Year-round, NPR tends to the bittersweet, the witty rather than uproarious, the world-weary rather than the cynical, the poignant, the melancholy, the wistful. These are the attitudes of the Arts & Humanities crowd, roused to righteous anger only against those who try and rouse them to righteous anger, charmed by everything but tending to observation rather than full-bore participation. NPR has the best describers of the vignettes of daily life, of which Garrison Keillor is the archetype.

Christmas kills them. They can access faith only via nostalgia, and that well soon runs dry. Real traditions include Mom, and going to church, and immersing yourself in that whole crowd of idiot relatives. Far better to have your Christmas carols instrumental, where the mood can grip you without the trouble of the lyrics. The programs at NPR are dignified, properly appalled at the deterioration of the season into commercialism and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer;" into the violent games or garish decorations.

This works well enough for that percentage of their audience that still holds to the Christian faith. We fear no nostalgia, and deplore many of the same things about the season. Instrumental carols and lights that don't blink are fine with us. Their secular audience must be okay with this approach as well. Perhaps with NPR guiding the tour they can trust that however close the bus gets to the edge of the road it will not go over into actual religious assertion. They can stay in their seat and admire the view.

I don't have the same sense in my bones for what the Jewish storytellers are experiencing, but it seems much the same. They grew up slightly alienated from the culture's holiday, but having something of their own to build nostalgia around. Now they seem alienated from that as well. And those who had little or no faith tradition - they're trying to find something worth saving in all this. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue, and a sixpence in your shoe - which is supposed to be for weddings, but they all try to make a holiday out of the same sort of homey elements.

Emotional distance has its advantages, and these makeshift Christmases don't seem to be tragic. There is a sort of courage about them, and shafts of real joy, and the nobility of those who refuse at least to be hypocrites. But story after story in December, as these deeply artistic and sensitive people try to capture the season, carries the theme of searching, of something missing, of arranging the dried flowers as beautifully as possible because no new ones will bloom.

Those of us who are believers are tempted to throw up our hands and say "Oh for Pete's sake! Relent for just a few days a year and allow yourself to be immersed in the faith of your youth. You'll get more out of Christmas that way. It'll do you good. Why is Jesus the one thing you can't keep?" But I think it is our own inattention to the season, our own taking it for granted, that causes us to think this way. We are so aware of how many things pull us away from Christ at Christmas that we have forgotten how dangerous it is for those outside to look in. They sense, as we should know but have forgotten, that to step inside might mean never coming back. If emotional distance does not bring warmth, it at least brings memories of warmth, with no danger of burning. 


james said...

Or they're tools to find balance or encouragement: "We need a little Christmas"

Sam L. said...

Some want only a miniscule little bit of Christmas.

dwbosch said...

Enjoying their Schweddy Balls...

RichardJohnson said...

I am not impressed with the Unitarian pastors assertions, BTW, though she does seem like a nice enough person. What Unitarians were like 150-200 years ago is irrelevant to today, far more so than with churches with more stable doctrine.

For example, RevCyn informs us about all the Christmas carols that UUs wrote. How many UUs would today enthusiastically embrace the religious parts of the lyrics of those songs? I, for one, would not be surprised that a lot of UUs in 2018 would like to scrub out the religious parts of those UU-written Christmas carols.

Quoting UUs provides sufficient material for mocking them. That is what upsets RevCyn.

For example, some of the UU jokes implied that UUs were more concerned with politics than they were with theology. Alternate description: for UUs, current political stances define their theology. (I write "current" to point out these stances are continually changing. Or as they would say- "evolving.")

RevCyn doesn't exactly refute the assertion about the importance of politics for UUs with the following post. Resistance, Renewal....Meanwhile, this doodle is a year old -- but the need for resistance continues.

Sam L. said...

This is why I have abandoned both Keillor and NPR, in part. The rest is Keillor's snarkiness and the lefty politics of both.

Tom Bridgeland said...

Quit listening to Keillor once I figured out that he really hated the people he was talking about. The mocking got more obvious, or I got older.

RichardJohnson said...

I stopped listening to PHC circa 2001, when I tired of the repeat shows that repeated shows of three months ago. Why couldn't they repeat a show from 10 years ago? Regarding Garrison Keillor going into snark mode, I decided to listen to a Dubya-era show, to see how snarky it was. December 15, 2007 broadcast with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and The Boys of the Lough. The show was broadcast from NYC. I found gentle humor directed at both NYC and flyover country. Though as some have pointed out, if you wanted to see Garrison Keiller in snark mode, his newspaper columns would suffice. I certainly found his columns snarky.

Texan99 said...

I enjoyed PHC, but can't pinpoint when. Perhaps it was the late 1980s. There was a sweet-natured story about the uneasy rivalry between the Lutheran pastor and the Catholic priest, both bachelors, in which they carefully find some common ground and, I think, spend Christmas together. In that story or a related one there's a throwaway line about the town's suspicion that the Lutheran pastor is "soft on Catholicism." The narrator didn't obviously hate anyone. It's a shame he turned into a bitter old man.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Father Emil of "Our Lady of Perpetual Responsibility" parish was likely the priest. Pastor David Ingkvist was married (to Judy Ingkvist, I think) so that doesn't match. But they did converse at times, rather secretively on both their parts. I don't remember that episode, but Father Emil brought out some very good liquor on one occasion, which Pastor Ingkvist admired, noting that he didn't dare go to the liquor store except around Christmas, when he might pass it off as a gift, even though it was far away. Father Emil noted that the bottle was a gift from one of Pastor Ingkvist's parishioners "who sometimes comes around for a second opinion." He recommended finding a few people who wouldn't mind bringing a bottle around for him discretely from time to time.

Yes, he wanted nothing more than to escape the people of his childhood - he was raised in a Brethren sect that was on the fundamentalist/evangelical boundary - but also loved them, and it shows.

Sam L. said...

Comment #3: It's NPR. Don't trust it, don't believe it.