Monday, December 28, 2009

Church is Ruined for me

Having grown up in a Christian environment, it is unsurprising I continue to find comfort in many Christian traditions—including many Christmas trappings. I like Christmas Carols. I say, “Merry Christmas” with abandonment. I find angels and stars and nativity scenes pretty.

One thing I always enjoyed was the Christmas Eve service, where typically one sang Carols by candlelight. I announced plans to attend a former church’s Christmas Eve service, and the rest of the family piled along.

We sang Carols by Candlelight; I joyously joined in. Watched the band play Christmas songs; liked that too. Saw a skit about the innkeeper; I chuckled at the appropriate moments.

But there was something else—something that didn’t exist in my memories of tradition. Too much knowledge; too much information.

When referring to the innkeeper from “No room for them at the inn” (Luke 2:7), my mind, unbidden, immediately thought of how this wasn’t a “hotel” as we envision, but rather a large gathering room at one of Joseph’ family member’s house. How the author of Luke uses the word kata luma rather than a pandocheion (Luke 10:34)—a place for strangers to obtain lodging.

Or when it was mentioned how terrible to be born in a stable, I remembered how animals typically stayed in the same lodging as humans, especially in winter. A running gag involved how exciting the census was, and I had to clamp my lips shut from saying, “Not at all! This census so infuriated the Judeans, it led to the Jewish Revolt and the complete destruction of the Temple!”

This nuance would pop up, or this platitude would be spoken, and each time my mind thought of all the things unstated. Incorrect. Unknown to the vast majority of the audience.

I realized an analogy would be watching a magic show. But a magic show where you already knew how every trick was performed. As much as you would try to enjoy yourself in the moment, your eye couldn’t help but wander to where the magician was palming the handkerchief at just the right moment. You can appreciate the mastering of the trick, yet your mind was anticipating how the box would fold, or when the girl would appear, or how the mirrors were not solid.

In some manner it would be regrettable, because you can’t quite suspend your disbelief to enjoy the magic show for what it is; you know too much. You can’t enjoy it as MAGIC--it is parlor tricks.

I felt the same way. I know what the Pastor was trying to say. I understand the points being made. I understand the rest of the audience “oohhed” and “aahhhed” at the wonderment of magic being displayed before them. Yet it is no longer magic to me.

I still enjoyed the singing. I enjoyed seeing people I haven’t seen in some time. I could see how I would enjoy the socialization of church.

I could do the Christmas Eve service again next year without hesitation. I just cannot re-capture the naivety of the nativity anymore.


  1. The magic tricks example is good. Some theists will essentially make a statement that they don't want to hear the arguments against their belief, they "don't want to know." I wonder if anyone would make the same argument about learning a magician's tricks. I think this post may have changed my mind in that regard, I might not want to learn the magician's tricks, curious as I might be, because I really do love the illusions they create. The bible though, that's another story, I want to know everything I can, not just illusions.

  2. Well said !
    I have often thought of a post called "When the Magic is Gone"
    This would fit in that category !

  3. I'm the same way. I also went to a Christmas service with the family. Sang all the hymns. I also say "Merry Christmas" at the store. I did wonder at service if any of these people knew how to explain how it is that a star could guide wise men to a specific house. How can this not bother grown men and women?

  4. Merry Christmas, DagoodS. Hope you had a good one - I certainly did..!!

    The magic has been ruined for me for quite some time. Like you, I have likened it to a magician's show, where part of the secret splendor of the magic is to keep it vague. Let the imagination fill in the details.

    I am going to let you in on a secret, DagoodS. I think I miss the magic.

    My mother drove to our house this Christmas, and we talked quite a bit about religion. She too is a de-convert, having left the Faith some 20 years ago. I never really talked to her about my own journey - not a big secret, I just don't see her very often any more, and when I do, we usually have other things going on. But she stayed with us for 3 days, so we had plenty of opportunities. She saw my bookshelf, and wondered about my collection of religiously themed books. With the door newly opened, I finally spilled my guts. How I came to not believe any more. Then she spilled hers to me. Although she knew that I knew she was no longer a Christian, she hesitated for years to tell me of her own journey. My mother has a very different story from my own, but I resonated completely with it. It felt really good.

    At the same time, my wife RoseMary, while still a nominal Catholic, has over the last year admitted that most of her beliefs are purely cultural. She still attends mass for the identity that her religion gives her, but beyond that, I think it has little religious value for her any more. She still believes in a god of some sort, but her god has become so vague in meaning that it has lost all definition.

    For the first time in RoseMary's life, she did not attend Christmas midnight mass. She tells me that she did not really miss it. Instead we had Christmas carolers over, sang both religious and secular carols with great gusto and watched movies with my mother and some other guests. We even stumbled upon the 700Club special on the ABC Family channel, and all joked about old Pat Robertson giving us Christmas hives.

    In short, we are becoming a truly secular family.

    But I miss the magic. Here is my secret, DagoodS. Christmas night I had a dream. I was back in San Antonio, New Mexico (a tiny town I used to live in), and I was riding my bike about town. It was night. I rode my bike to the sandwich shop. It was closed. I rode to the Owl cafe. They were putting up their chairs and moping the floor for the night - closed. I rode to my old house. Dank, dark, dreary and alone. I felt my old house was inhabited only by ghosts. It gave me the chills, so I left. I rode my bike all over town, and there was nothing moving. No life. Dark. Alone. Empty. Then I rode to the town plaza. Every town in this area has a small plaza with a gazebo, across from which is a Spanish mission style Catholic church. I saw the lights on in the mission, and suddenly I heard something like the Ava Maria, and I was replaying the Night on Bald Mountain segment from Disney's Fantasia. The glowing lights. The mystery of the saints. The otherworldly chants of the holy ones. Suddenly, I knew what I was missing in my secular Chrismas - the transcendence of the Holy, the Mystery and the Magic symbolized in the church's statues, icons, incense, liturgies, chants, hymns and reverence. I walked up the church's aisle under the eyes of the saints, the smell of the incense and the hypnotic chanting. This was what my Christmas was missing. A very powerful dream, and I know exactly what my old brain is trying to tell me.

    Magic, Mystery, Transcendence, Holiness, Infinity and Awe. The watchful eyes of the Almighty. I admit, I do miss that, even though I know that it is just a magic show with great special effects.

    Funny huh?

  5. Merry Christmas, HeIsSailing.

    No, I do not find it peculiar at all that you miss the concept of transcendence. Re-read the blog entry’s first sentence.

    I, too, find my family becoming more secular. My wife has stopped attending church. Too much effort; complete lack of socialization. My children are cognizant of Christianity’s dogmas, but it doesn’t seem to be integrated in their lives. Facts to be known; not doctrines to live by.

    The best example I can give is a conversation with my oldest daughter (17) who is dating a Lutheran boy and going to his church. I inquired as to his (and his family’s) beliefs:

    Me: Do they drink?
    Daughter: Oh, yeah.
    Me: Are they against homosexual marriage?
    Daughter: Well…yeah…but they aren’t pushy about it. They would be O.K. with civil unions.
    Me: Do they believe the Earth is only 6,000 years old?
    Daughter: I don’t know…Don’t worry Dad—they’re like you and me. They don’t take this stuff seriously.

    I found that last sentence illuminating and let the conversation drop.

    Interesting the reactions of the people who have commented here. Why do deconverts keep getting drawn back toward Church?

  6. Why do deconverts keep getting drawn back toward Church?(Dagoods)

    Maybe the same reason a secular person would want discourse with both the religious and non religious. We all want community. I get it.

    Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays. :)

  7. I think I miss what it was to me as a child. It was truth, it was my whole social life, lots of good memories.

    I never particularly enjoyed it as an adult.

    My husband and I thought of going to a service on Xmas Eve, but then changed our minds. None of the kids wanted to go. We all had fun playing Cranium and enjoying being together near the pretty Christmas tree and inside where it was warm.

    It does feel sad to know that the Nativity story is probably a myth. And I agree that it's weird to think of adults believing in a star over the manger scene. Do they ever even wonder if it truly makes sense? I think people don't put much thought into it period.

    To me, the sadness is that I finally grew up. Not a kid anymore.

  8. I am embarrassed to admit in front of my friend Dagoods that I still believe in magic, because I know I can't make a very good argument for it. But, since I deconverted, I don't feel the need to lie anymore about my beliefs.

    I don't believe in the traditional Christian magic. It's kind of simple really, I pray to what or who I don't know somewhere around my ceiling fan over my bed I think, and stuff seems to happen and I say thank you. I still can't affect the weather, actually, I don't try. And my prayers seem fewer and more... effectual since I stopped praying to a God with a specific definition. Maybe I am just hitting the odds, I have no idea. A lucky gambler. :)

  9. My husband and I went to a morning worship service yesterday. It was nice to be with a group of people and looking at the lit candles. I sang the carols, but didn't recite the creeds and prayers.

    What the pastor told the children seemed silly and I doubt the children understood it. The other pastor spoke about the wise men and the gifts we give or something like that. Basically saying nothing. But he was talking as if the nativity story was really truth.

    It felt so unbelievable to me, and I was wondering if he truly believed it and how many in the audience even questioned it at all.

    We left before communion. So I had mixed feeling about the whole thing, but mainly feeling that I can't really become a part of it because I simply don't believe in it anymore. That would make me a hypocrite.

  10. How about sport teams -- you move to a city, go to the games and cheering for the team, but 6 months earlier you were cheering for another team. Maybe it is only the natural-born, never-left residents of that city that will ever feel pure in their hearts when cheering for the team.

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  12. Your blog (blogspot !) let me double post accidentally. Sorry

  13. Maybe all those who don't get excited about it one way or the other are way ahead of the game. It can't damage them like it did me. I took it all very seriously. Maybe they just know it's a cultural thing and don't worry too much about it.

  14. I love Christmas Eve services, too. I just go for the singing and ignore everything else.

    BTW, you removed the Name+URL option, so now i have to sign up with my wordpress blog name. Can't use my e-name :(


  15. ex-fundy,

    The problems is when I open up the comments, I get spammed.