Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Santa Claus Conspiracy

Tis the season of Santa Claus. Who doesn’t love to hear the man with the white beard, all decked out in a red suit, laughing, “Ho-ho-ho!”?

Despite the fact that the Santa narrative often overshadows Jesus’ birth narrative, the jolly old elf is so much fun that most Christians are hard-pressed to do away with him. (Christian cultures all around the world have some kind of a Santa figure.) So, we tell our children dueling dual stories and figure that, eventually, they’ll figure out the real meaning of Christmas for themselves. 

Before I proceed, please know that I’m not one of those religious types who are down on Santa Claus. You know, the ones who won’t allow Santa Claus to have any part in their Christmas celebration. These are the same kind of people who insist that Halloween is akin to devil worship. Nope, I’m not one of them. Santa Claus is okay in my book. So is Peter Cottontail. And the Tooth Fairy. I would never deny children the fun these colorful characters bring. But… 

I also would never be a part of the adult conspiracy that passes these fictional characters off to children as real. It’s deceptive. It’s wrong. And it’s damaging to the faith of children.

Adults often go to great lengths to make sure their children believe in Santa Claus. Should a child dare to question the logic of it all, the adult will resort to piling the bullshit on even deeper. All this seems to come from some perverse need to protect the child from the harsh reality of a world without mythical characters who see everything you do and keep track of it all so you can be rewarded or punished for your deeds. 

Just think about that for a moment. Does it not teach a twisted world-view to children? At best, it’s bribery. At its worse, it teaches children that love is, in fact, quite conditional and, whether or not you receive cool stuff, all depends upon how good you are. (You might also want to consider the implications this way of thinking has for children of poverty.) In recent years, many have added the creepy Elf on the Shelf to the myth, and the deception has only multiplied.  

What may seem like harmless play to adults is not so harmless from a child’s perspective. I remember well the angst I went through as a child when I started detecting holes in the Santa Claus story. It just didn’t make sense that a guy could carry enough presents on his sleigh to bring presents to all the kids in the world. The number of presents under my family’s Christmas tree alone would fill one very large sleigh. And how could he possibly deliver all those presents to everyone in the entire world in one night? I wasn’t very old when I realized that it was a preposterous premise. 

This happened to be right around the time my father died, and it created a real crisis of faith for me. I remember feeling deceived by adults. I had no idea what a conspiracy was, but that’s clearly what was going on. I felt betrayed by people I thought I could trust. They were all in on it together, and I wondered what else they had lied to me about. 

Perhaps God, too, was something adults made up to get us kids to be good. After all, grown-ups seemed to go to similar lengths to convince children that their far-fetched stories about God were true. And then there were the threats that if I dared question the existence of Santa, I wouldn’t get any presents on Christmas morning, so I’d better play along and keep my doubts to myself. Yes, the God stories seemed to follow the same pattern. 

When my kids were born, I vowed that I would never lie to them, especially about matters of faith. (Yes, to a child, for the above reasons, the existence of the Santa Claus is a matter of faith.) So, I was always up front with them about Santa, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. 

From the get-go, I told Gretchen and Ben, “Santa is pretend." And it didn’t ruin a darn thing for them. Of course, in their earliest years they had no idea what pretend meant, nor did they care. The line between pretend and real to a four-year-old is non-existent. 

All these pretend characters still visited our house, and we’d play along, because it was fun. During December we visited Santa and they told him what they wanted for Christmas. On Christmas Eve, we put out cookies and milk for him, and then, as they got older, on Christmas morning, the kids would ask their father and me, “Which one of you ate the cookies?” (wink wink)

As they grew, they came to understand the difference between what’s real and what’s pretend, and it just wasn’t a big deal. They never had to face the harsh truth about Santa Claus because it had never been hidden from them. Best of all, they never had to wonder why their mother had lied to them. 

I wasn’t a perfect parent, by any means. I messed up a lot. But to this day, I feel especially good about the way I handled this, and I encourage new parents to consider taking a similar approach with their kids. You don’t have to banish Santa Claus from your home. Just be up front about him with your children. Let them know that Santa is pretend. At the very least, when they start to question the veracity of Santa, come clean with them. Then, when it comes to matters of faith, they’ll be able to trust you.

(As a footnote, to parents. Be assured that I will not be exposing the Santa Claus conspiracy to your children. If they believe in Santa, I will respect that. But please know that I will not reinforce it.)

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

"My life of education hasn't hurt me none"... but has it helped me?

In his song, "Kodachrome", Paul Simon sings, " life of education hasn't hurt me none." I’m thinking back on my formal education this morning and wondering if that's true. I suspect it hasn't hurt me. But has it helped me? I have to wonder, what was the point?

After high school, I spent over 14 additional years in school. For the past 26 years I’ve been able to put Ph.D. after my name, although I rarely do. It’s not necessary for my job, or my life either, for that matter. When I went for it, I thought I would one day teach in a college or a seminary, but my timing was off and life got in the way, so it didn’t happen. Now I don’t feel any calling whatsoever to the academic life. What was the point?

Honestly, after I successfully defended my dissertation, and my advisor told me I was officially in the club, I felt a let-down. It seemed to prove little. I knew better than to believe it was a sign of my superior intelligence. If anything, a doctorate is a reward for perseverance after jumping through what seem to be a never-ending series of hoops. When it was all over, if I had any pride over what I had accomplished, it was that I had hung in there and finished what I started. I made it all the way through the last hoop! 

My Ph.D. does not leave me feeling better than less schooled people. Not only is the sheepskin missing from my office wall, I couldn’t even tell you where it is. I actually am a little embarrassed by it because it seems so pretentious to me. Yes, for a short while, I knew a whole lot about a little. But now I am only too aware of the fact that I know very little about a whole lot.
Through the years, I have had this recurring dream where, for one reason or another, it’s discovered that I never actually fulfilled the requirements to graduate from high school. So, they take all my degrees away from me and I have to go back to finish. The problem is, I can’t pass any of the tests in order to graduate. This isn’t far from the truth. I suspect that I really wouldn’t be able to pass the standardized tests to graduate from high school these days. Especially the math. Oy! Knowing that leaves me feeling like such a fraud. Yes, I’ve spent more years in school after high school than it takes most people to get to high school graduation. And, what was the point?

There is much about our educational process, in general, that leaves me asking this same question. In our culture, we encourage kids to go to college so they can get a good job someday; many recent college graduates are still waiting. But then, even when it happens according to plan, even when you find yourself in a position where you get paid more because you have a college degree, how much of what you learned while working toward that college degree do you actually use in your job? The percentage has to be miniscule. I sometimes wonder if we just reward people for playing the game and going along with the system.
What do I know? I took Latin in high school, and what was the point of that? At the time, the draw was that it would help you on your SAT because it’s such a great vocabulary-builder. What a crock! Since English borrows heavily from the Germanic and Romance languages, any one of those is a great vocabulary-builder. And the thing about German or Spanish is that you can actually go someplace where people speak the language! I can see absolutely no point in learning Latin or Klingon or any other language that no living person on earth speaks.

Maybe I’m just a slacker. Back when I was in seminary we had to learn Greek so that we could read the New Testament in its original language. (By the way, it’s also a language that no one speaks anymore as modern Greek is only remotely akin to biblical Greek.) I went to classes and crammed it all in so I could meet the requirements. But that was forty years ago. I have colleagues who turn to their Greek text every week as they prepare their sermons, but not me. It’s been decades since I’ve cracked open my Greek New Testament. So, what was the point?

Was it all a waste of time? Although I’m sure I must have gained something from my schooling, I have trouble pinpointing what that something is. It certainly wasn’t about accumulating information, because that seems to leave my head as quickly as it enters, which is why my best friend these days is someone named Google. If anything, I learned how to learn. I learned a way of thinking critically, with my mind open to new possibilities. And I learned a way of organizing and processing stuff that I might not have figured out otherwise. Or maybe I would have. I’ll never know, because I can’t go back and un-school myself.
Perhaps the best I can say is that my formal education hasn’t hurt me. Maybe it’s even made me a better person. I'm not sure. But it seems that the most important things I’ve learned have had little to do with school. Things like forgiveness, and compassion, and joy. And I've learned about them in a multitude of ways: through my relationships with other people, through losses, by making mistakes, by venturing outside my comfort zone. Of course, that’s learning that continues to this day. There are no hoops to jump through, no papers to write, no exams to take at the end. Instead, this learning simply leads me into a deeper, fuller understanding of myself and the One who is Love. And that, I know, is really the point.