Christmas is a funny time of year, and if you’re a regular reader of my blog, chances are you already know where I stand on most of the hoopla that seems to surround the holiday. But no matter how many times I tell people to chill out, relax, and try not to take things too seriously during a season supposedly preaching the benefits of peace and goodwill, some folks just don’t listen or learn.
Recently in Auckland, New Zealand, St. Matthew-In-The-City Church put up a billboard celebrating the arrival of the Christmas season. This is not at all uncommon; Ontario residents will attest to seeing that sort of pseudo-spiritual advertising all over the place, the most common of which is a nativity scene depicting Mary holding baby JC in the traditional swaddling clothes while Joseph, Christianity’s first step-father, stands dutifully by under the watch of the Star of Bethlehem. The ad reads “Keep Christ in Christmas” and it starts popping up on the front lawns and store roofs of the devout in and around the same time Santa and his crew start making their appearance in department stores nation-wide (around November first, if you remember).
But this particular Kiwi church took a fundamentally different approach to reminding the secular masses of the “reason for the season” as it were. Their billboard depicts a dejected Joseph and Mary lying in bed with the sheets drawn up, obviously post-coitus, with a tag-line that reads “Poor Joseph; God is a hard act to follow.” (Editor’s note: I couldn’t find a picture of the billboard anywhere, but thankfully K, one of my Correspondents, found it for me. You now warrant the polar bear.)
When I read this in the news on my way down to the Compound this morning I launched into five minutes of protracted giggling, causing many of my fellow commuters to glance over questioningly and then shift uncomfortably away from me. But I can’t help it: religious humour is funny to me. I fault my father for this, actually.
You see, I was raised in something of a split environment. My mother is a United-sect Christian (also known as that really liberal church that happens to believe in Jesus) and my father is a devout atheist. My mother took my younger sister and I to her church when we were younger, because she felt it would be a valuable part of instilling solid morals in us, as well as adding to our overall theological education; she encouraged us to learn more about other religions as well and always left the door open for us to pursue other religious leanings if we felt more drawn to, say, Judaism or Buddhism or Scientology (well, maybe not that last one). My dad never objected to a spiritual upbringing for his children, but he didn’t really take part in that portion of our lives, and once we were older and had more-or-less chosen paths of agnosticism or straight-up atheism for ourselves, he took great delight in poking gentle fun at my mother’s beliefs, much to our amusement.
Christmas Eve at the James household was always split evenly between the whole “Jesus” thing and the whole “Santa” thing, in the interest of reminding us kids that while we would be receiving gifts from that benevolent Northern burglar, we should not forget that Christmas is still rooted in religion and is most importantly about peace and togetherness et cetera &c. To that end, our evening traditionally included reading both a truncated “kid” version of the Biblical story of Christmas, and of Clement Clark Moore’s iconic poem “The Night Before Christmas”. Originally those stories were read to us by our parents, but as we aged, my sister and I took over the readings ourselves, trading off the Jesus story with the considerably more fun Santa story each year.
One particular year, my father prefaced our Christmas Eve celebrations with the following joke.
“So there they all are in Bethlehem: Mary, Joseph, the baby, the farm animals and everyone else who came to see the miraculous child being born, and the three Wise Men pull up outside the manger on their camels. The first Wise Man goes in with his gift of gold, and it’s gratefully accepted. The second Wise Man enters and hands over his gift of frankincense, and that’s accepted too. The third Wise Man, who’s a little bit tall and not very bright, gets off his camel and goes to walk in the door of the manger, but on the way he bangs his head on the doorframe and shouts “Ouch! Jesus Christ!” Mary turns to Joseph and says “Write that down, it’s a way better name than Clyde!”
Okay, so it’s not the best joke in the world, but it set the whole family off. Later on, while trying to make it through the titular Story of Christmas, it was all I could do to not replace every mention of Jesus with the name “Clyde”, much to my father and sister’s amusement and my mother’s chagrin (to be fair, she wasn’t really angry, and she did deal with our blatant heretical humour with her characteristic grace).
Why do I bring up this charming but ultimately pointless story?
Well, it seems that more than a few people lack my liberal sense of humour and have decided to take considerable offense to the Auckland billboard. So much so, in fact, that the billboard had paint thrown on it within six hours of its posting, and was stolen last night, apparently to express some cheerless congregant’s displeasure with the sign’s comedic intent.
Or, in other words, some crotchety old joy-hating right-wingers can’t get the stick out of their asses long enough to have a good chuckle at a joke that isn’t even all that offensive – certainly not as much so as the church’s original design for the billboard, which would have featured a sperm descending from heaven with a caption reading “joy to the world”. Which in my mind would have been just as awesome, if not more so, but I could see people getting worked up about the semen part.
This is part of what I’ve never understood about religion. I know faith is a very important part of the lives of religious folk, and I’m not trying to castigate them for their beliefs (even though they tend to do a lot of that to us atheists), but for God’s sake (hurr hurr) get off your damn high horse and breathe a little.
It would have been one thing if the billboard had been put up with malevolent intent: for example, by a renegade group of pissed-off atheists who were trying to be disparaging and insulting to members of another belief. I would have been the first person to say hey, that’s not cool.
But it wasn’t, was it? No, it was the church itself that put up the ad, and as far as I’m concerned the only people who should get a say in what that church chooses to advertise is the people in charge of said church and their congregation.
Think about it this way. I routinely walk by church bulletin boards that encourage me to come in and accept Jesus as my own personal saviour. Okay, I also walk by Coke ads – doesn’t mean I’m being forced to drink Coke, no problem. I can even give a pass to the ads that berate me for not being Christian and remind me that I’m likely going to end up bent over some otherworldly torture device for the amusement of well-endowed demons for all eternity if I don’t cop to their world view, because I’m a grown-up and I’m capable of tuning into – or out of – the myriad of messages lobbed at me all day, every day by our consumer-based advertising culture. But the blade cuts both ways; if you’re going to sling mud at others, you’d best be prepared for others to sling it right back – and the people for whom I have the most respect are the ones who aren’t above seeing the fun in their own beliefs.
That’s why St. Matthew-In-The-City gets a pass in my books, because they’re sticking to their guns: within hours of the theft of their bulletin board, they printed another copy and put it right back up again. This comes despite the fact that they received a formal complaint from the Catholic Church as well as a metric ton of hate mail and phone calls – some from as far away as overseas – threatening violence against church members and staff.
Hey, way to be Christian, right? Make a joke and somebody beats the shit out of you – well, I’m pretty sure that’s what Jesus would have done.
According to church spokesman Clay Nelson, the billboard was designed to stir debate about the true meaning of Christmas, and to attract attention in a humorous way. And for my part, I think it worked.
Joking aside, this time of year is really rough on people. I’ve been privy to some tragedy myself throughout this season, so I think it’s very important that people can relax a little bit, enjoy a laugh among their friends, family and fellow believers, and – even though I’m not Christian – remember the true meaning of Christmas, which is and has always been peace, joy and good will towards all people.
That is one point upon which both Clyde and I can agree.