Tag Archives: Media

A Merry Little Christmas

Now that summer has gone (and come back again for one last hurrah, then properly disappeared at the sight of the snowflake symbol flashing on our dashboards), it’s definitely that “approaching Christmas” time of year again.  In fact, the TV adverts are already telling me that “It’s Christmas” (not just approaching Christmas!).  It surely won’t be long before the radios of the land will be beginning to play the usual festive tunes, and DJs will sound excitable and nostalgic all at the same time.  Noddy Holder and Roy Wood can look forward to another bumper royalties pay-out, as can George Michael’s erstwhile musical collaborator, Mr Ridgley, while shops and offices sway to the themes of Last Christmas.

Constant radio-play drills these songs into our heads.  Today’s children don’t know the National Anthem, or even some of the best traditional Christmas Carols, but you can be sure they know Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer’s special song!  Loads of these popular Christmas songs refer to nostalgia, winter weather and to the activities of one red-suited white-bearded gentleman with a supersonic sledge.  To find any reference to the Christ of Christ-mas you’d probably have to listen to Cliff Richard.  Indeed, very few songs refer to the religious aspects of the Christmas season at all.  I find it fascinating, then, that, despite the normal pattern taken by writers to avoid religious motifs of any sort, one of the most popular Christmas songs actually treats us as if we believe in the tales of Greek mythology!

The song is “Have yourself a merry little Christmas,” popularised by Judy Garland in the 1944 MGM film, “Meet me in St Louis,” and subsequently recorded by notable others including Frank Sinatra and the Muppets (separately!).  Having spoken of “Faithful friends who are dear to us” who “gather near to us once more,” the song speaks of a hope that, “Through the years we all will be together, if the Fates allow.”

The Fates may sound like a slightly dubious 1960s pop-group, but they are in fact characters from the Greek pantheon: Clotho (the spinner) spins the thread of life for each human being; Lachesis (the measurer) chooses the lot in life each person will have and measures off how long that life is to be; and Atropos (she who cannot be turned) finally cuts the thread of life with her shears, so bringing each person to death.  In the world of Greek mythology, everything is subject to them – even the gods themselves.

Can there be anything more out of place in a Christmas song than a reference to three hag-like characters who wield such an impersonal and determinative power over the whole universe?  I’ll grant you that Rage Against The Machine’s Christmas number one of a few years ago was in pretty poor taste, but I reckon this line is probably more unhelpful still.  It taps into our society’s materialistic understanding of the world and encourages us to shrug our shoulders along with Doris Day and say, “Que sera, sera!” (or as today’s teenagers might put it, “Whatever!”) as if life doesn’t really matter.

This is complete madness, since the whole point about Christmas is that we matter immensely to God.  He doesn’t stand back, unable to overcome the power of the Fates (who don’t actually exist).  Rather, in His great love, He breaks into our world in the person of Jesus to rescue us and make us His children.  For those who feel helpless in the face of “fate” or other powers and authorities, He brings hope; the creator of the universe cares enough for us to search us out and bring us back to Himself so that through the years, we will be together.  And that’s a story that guarantees my celebrations each year can be described as “A merry little Christmas”.

Melvyn Bragg Wide of the Mark

I learned something new on Good Friday; Melvyn Bragg wrote the screenplay for the Rice/Lloyd-Webber Musical “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  According to Lord Bragg, adapting that theatrical piece for the big screen proved to be the start of a fascination with Mary Magdalene; a fascination which would eventually produce a documentary to air at 12 noon on Good Friday, the BBC’s flagship “Religious” programme for the 2013 Easter season.

I had been warned in advance that the show would be screened at that time (to coincide with Jesus’ crucifixion?) and encouraged to watch.  So I did.  In the end I was probably less offended than I had prepared myself to be, but I did watch the closing titles with sadness of heart.  The BBC had used its prime-time slot at Easter to present a fanciful alternative to the Christian message rather than something more factual or something that might help people to reflect upon the central figure of Christianity; Jesus the Christ.  Melvyn Bragg was wide of the mark.

To his credit, Lord Bragg was honest about the limited scope of the Biblical evidence about Mary Magdalene.  He was even happy to admit that her status as the first witness of the resurrected Christ (some have dubbed her “the apostle to the apostles”) gives added weight to the veracity of the resurrection accounts – in those days, the testimony of a woman was not regarded as having any value, so the fact that she is mentioned in this light points to the truth of the matter (nobody would make it up!).  But most of the programme was about other things.

First, there was the way the church of later centuries treated Mary Magdalene.  Bragg spoke of the way that the senior and influential figures in the church confused and merged different women in the Gospel accounts together as “Mary” in such a way that she could be presented as a strong example of a penitent sinner.  The church was presented as “wrong” on this matter.  (I don’t disagree with this verdict, but it is painful to hear nonetheless, because no distinction was made between the failures of the early church and the state of the church today; what the audience heard was “The church was/is wrong.”)

Second, there was the uncritical appeal to the minority report of the Nag Hamadi texts – literature from the “Gnostic” sect of Christianity which was around from the end of the 1st century and which believed a very different message to orthodox Christianity as we know it today (or as we find in the letters of Paul and the rest of the New Testament).  Predictably, Bragg highlighted the one fragment of a text in which Jesus is reported to have favoured Mary above the other disciples and “kissed her on the mouth often,” but, regrettably, though one of the scholars did admit we could not be sure what such kisses really meant, none of them identified that the fragment is actually damaged just where the word “mouth” would be.  The real issue is not that we don’t know what a kiss on the mouth might have meant in those days, but rather that we don’t even know what the text really says!  Of course, the real issue is of no interest to the programme makers; they just want something sensational to interest the public.

Strikingly, Bragg promoted the view that ancient documents (again, without qualifying this at all) suggest strongly that Mary Magdalene was “Jesus’ lover, or even his wife.”  I confess I found this most bizarre; that Lord Bragg should find it somehow of more concern that Mary be Jesus’ wife than his [unmarried] lover!  Of course, the evidence for such a relationship is virtually non-existent and the hints come only from late, scarce and unreliable sources; the silence of the canonical Gospels on this matter actually speaks a far more authoritative word.  However, the TV audience just heard that she “might have been” (in context “probably was”) his lover… and the reputation of both Jesus and his church is tarnished once again.

Third, a significant assumption made popular by Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code” were repeated.  This was that the Gnostic “Gospels” were written as early as the four Gospels we have in the Bible.  Reputable scholars suggest this is highly unlikely – suggesting the origin of the Gnostic material is almost certainly a century or so later.  Similarly, the programme promoted the view that the Emperor Constantine was instrumental in choosing the books that would officially become parts of the Christian Bible so that they would convey the message he wished others to hear rather than the “truth”.  The real way the books of the New Testament were chosen by and authorised for use in church gatherings is much more complicated (but this doesn’t make such controversial television!).

Fourth, and connected with this, Constantine’s suppression of certain branches of the church (Lord Bragg called them “Christians” without qualification) was connected with the suppression of women; the outlawed Gnostics seemed to allow women to rise to positions of leadership, and, of course, this would never do.  Thus Bragg neatly linked ancient history to an issue which is currently proving difficult for the church – “Things might have been so different,” he mused.

All in all I guess I found the programme most disappointing because of the thread running through the programme that “the church was/is wrong”; wrong about Mary’s identity, wrong to exclude the heretical Gnostic texts, wrong to hide Jesus’ alleged affair with Mary, wrong to take the view it did on women in leadership.  There was a sense in which the programme presented Lord Bragg as “finally, a sensible voice!” on these matters, unearthing secrets the church would rather stay hidden.  He made some sensible conclusions (like him, I do not believe that Mary Magdalene was sent off in a rudderless boat, ended up in France and performed a miracle by praying that the wife of a local prince might conceive a child).  But in his quest for a sensational story, he literally went all over the place, up every dead end street drawing attention to all manner of false beliefs and raising all kinds of false hopes.

What a shame he didn’t settle for the most sensational news of all time; the news which Mary Magdalene herself encountered and shared – that Jesus Christ is risen from the grave; that death is defeated, and that forgiveness of sins is freely given in his name to all who will believe.  Now that would have been an appropriate programme for the Easter season!