Critics of religion often dismiss it as “extremist.” I’ve come to concede that, in the case of Christianity at least, they are right.
And nowhere is this extremism more blatant and offensive than during the seemingly benign season of Christmas. And it should repel us–at least those of us who are truly sophisticated, whether conservative or progressive in outlook.
This extremism is most evident at Advent in its so-called Christmas carols, which, if we really listened to their message, would lead all of us (not merely religion’s more cultured despisers) to cry out, “When is enough enough?”
Consider the Christmas carol “In the Bleak Midwinter.”
The carol’s lyrics were originally a poem by Christina Rosetti, an English poet, who otherwise was hailed in the mid-19th century as England’s finest female poet. That a person of such extraordinary intelligence and stunning literally skill, acclaimed by none other than Lord Tennyson, should write such a silly poem devoted to Advent surely indicates just how deceptively Christianity’s extremism can brainwash even the finest minds and hearts.
It is altogether possible that Rosetti’s intermittent bouts of despair may have unduly influenced her: she apparently came to believe that the world, left to itself, was a very dark, even hopeless place. My own guess is that, while growing up in a context of significant learning, her privileged upbringing nevertheless failed to shield her from, well, reality. But privilege, as we all know, is the key to a successful life–that’s why we call it privilege.
How did her relative lack of privilege delude her into thinking that humanity could not save itself? It could have been her father’s failing health and depression, but it may well have been her ongoing service at a local charity that ministered to prostitutes who, largely due to incurable or highly infectious disease, had been thrown out of their brothels onto the streets, pariahs with absolutely nowhere to turn. (Prostitution was epidemic in Victorian England, with young men and husbands stopping by the brothel on their way home from work. In its great wisdom Parliament passed legislation against diseased prostitutes, primarily in the hope of saving Britain’s military men from contamination: apparently, prostitutes were preying upon these innocent young fighting men, who merely wanted to serve their empire in furthering its altruistic foreign policy.)
In 1906 Gustaf Holst set the poem to an exalted and haunting tune, making the poem’s blatant extremism all the more intoxicating.
Turning to the poem / song lyrics, as we examine each verse in order, the flagrant and unsettling extremism of Christianity will become altogether self-evident:
In the bleak mid-winter
Frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron,
Water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow
Snow on snow,
In the bleak mid-winter
The first verse uses the common, yet hardly innocuous “motif” of nature, with its seasons and agricultural and botanical cycles, to communicate one of the most extremist tenants of Christianity: our world should be hospitable and fertile, but tragically is not.
That is, all around us there is so much potential–the key elements of life–namely, “earth” and “water,” and yet all is inevitably (it seems) “bleak.” Wind, which would otherwise spread seed and pollen and bring clouds, is only “frosty,” evoking a regrettable, chilling “moan.”
“Earth”–that is, soil–which can be rich, moist, soft and ready to receive seed, is “hard as iron.” Here Rosetti likely “echoes” Deuteronomy 28, where ancient Israel is told that, should they refuse to follow the life-giving wisdom of Yahweh found in Torah, she will in time experience his curse: “The sky over your head will be bronze [i.e., rainless], the ground beneath you iron.” Likewise, “water,” which gives life to all things, has taken a state of immutable uselessness, having become “like a stone.”
The verse closes out with repetition of snowfall: “snow on snow, snow on snow.” Those of us in colder climates know all too well how multiple snowfalls can pack the snow down, creating an impenetrable icy layered sheet.
Nothing can grow here. There is no possibility of life. All is bleak. Do you see the extremism? Neither conservative “rugged individualism” and hard work nor progressive policies, programs, and education can ultimately do a damn thing. That’s extremism.
The first verse closes out with an important note: this is not just any given winter but “the bleak mid-winter / Long ago.” This is, then, the very first Christmas–when there was no hope.
The potential for life (in the “wind,” “earth,” and “water”), when obliterated by the impossibility of life (“bleak . . . frosty . . . iron . . . stone . . . snow on snow”) compels the reader to cry out, “How long? When is enough enough?”
The extremism of the first verse then gives ways to a second wildly extremist thesis in the second and third verses:
Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him
Nor earth sustain;
Heaven and earth shall flee away
When he comes to reign:
In the bleak mid-winter
A stable-place sufficed
The Lord God Almighty,
Enough for Him, for whom cherubim
Worship night and day,
A breastful of milk,
And a manger full of hay;
Enough for Him, whom angels
Fall down before,
The ox and ass and camel
The second verse bursts forth with an altogether extremist view of God: he is utterly unconstrainable and overwhelming. The incalculable might and wonder of ancient Israel’s God was often expressed through spatial imagery: when King Solomon dedicates the glorious temple he has built for Yahweh, he readily concedes in prayer, asking, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!”
In a similar vein, verse 2 of the song declares that “heaven” and “earth”–the two realms that together poetically describe the entirety of the created order (see Genesis 1.1)–these realms cannot “hold” or “constrain”–that is, they present no meaningful obstacle to–the purposes of the Unfathomable One, whom Rosetti nevertheless describes intimately and inspiringly as “our God.”
Such an extremist view of God–viz., an ever-underestimated deity, whom no one and nothing can “hold”–is a view that no right-thinking sophisticate can hold. Any plausible deity is one that can be accounted for–contained, if you will, in our latest (and, therefore, best) ideological reflection: how could there possibly be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy? Such a notion is at the heart of religious extremism–Christianity’s most of all. So let us ask it again: when is enough enough?
But the rest of the 2nd verse, and all the 3rd verse with it, doesn’t make sense: having spoken of the Creator’s unconstrainability, the verse now tells of startling constraint–possibly even an unhealthy extremist form of self-constraint: in this same “bleak mid-winter / A stable-place sufficed / The Lord God Almighty, / Jesus Christ.” In such an under-resourced context, surrounded by non-existent health care options and institutionalized racism (neither Joseph nor Mary had Roman citizenship), what can we expect from this child but to grow up to be a thug? (It goes without saying that to make something of himself, this child would first need political empowerment.)
Continuing into the third verse, the repeated phrases “Enough for him” stand in embarrassing contradiction with the preceding uncontainable might and splendor: how could so little ever be “enough”? Since we can’t make sense of it, how could it possibly be true? However, when one takes to heart that a “stable-place” and “a breastful of milk / And a mangerful of hay” were “enough for him,” it does make one look around at all that we have (and want) and ask of ourselves: when is enough enough?
The carol’s final two verses sound a final extremist perspective of Christianity–that, on the whole, what human cultures value and what their Creator values are diametrically opposed. Or, as Jesus himself said, “What is highly valued among men is detestable in God’s sight.”
What heaven exalts humans ignore:
Angels and archangels
May have gathered there,
Cherubim and seraphim
Thronged the air –
But only His mother
In her maiden bliss
Worshipped the Beloved
With a kiss.
What can I give him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give him –
Give my heart.
The fourth verse offers a contrast of worlds–heaven’s angelic throngs, enthralled in adoration, yet on earth accompanying these celestial masses, only a simple maiden, whose CV was doubtlessly depressing–so what was her opinion worth?
What “gathered” the heavens, such that they “thronged” to the event–namely, God’s “Beloved”–received no welcome on earth, which had more important things to do.
And that is the final–and perhaps most insulting–extremist dogma of Christianity found in the carol: we humans apparently don’t know what’s important. And the final verse drives this theme home: though we all know that the under-resourced have nothing to offer unless they are well-educated and given a “respectable” job (so they can actually be somebody), here it’s actually maintained that our station in life is of little consequence to this infant worthy of our worship.
In fact, what he wants most from us is what we all have–every last one of us, rich and poor, young and old, from every tongue, tribe, people and nation: our hearts. But consumed as we are by the more important pursuit of greater importance through our coursework, careers, and connections, such an extremist reordering of “what is important” would demand us to ask ourselves a question that would strike far too close to home: when is enough enough?
Such is the extremism of Christianity. No wonder this infant would end up on a cross.
. . . . . . . . .
For a great performance of “In the Bleak Mid-Winter,” see the clip below, sung by Susan Boyle (a vocalist whose own story is of note), accompanied the boys’ choir Libera.