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Christmas 2019

For a long time now I’ve had ambivalent feelings toward Christmas.   Some of my blog posts from years past on the day and its meaning have very much celebrated its great sides (you can just search for “Christmas” on the blog and you’ll see them).  But I’ve long seen the downsides as well, frequently discussed among people we know and know about and more frequently felt even when not discussed.   I still see these down sides – one above all — in some ways more and more every year.  But I’ve begun to wonder if at least there might not be *something* good that can come out of them.  Or at least a couple of them.

The one for which I think there is no real hope is the severe loneliness and depression the season causes for so many people.   It is a fraught time, when everyone else seems to be enjoying family, friends, and festivities, but so many have no one and nothing to look forward to, or horrible experiences with the holiday in the past, personal disasters, family cataclysms, violently dashed hopes for a happy time.   For many people – I know some, you may know even more, many of you are among them – the “joyful” holiday is the most miserable time of the year.

I know some very sanguine people who see such miseries as an opportunity to help – go to the rescue mission to serve meals on the day, visit a lonely neighbor, do something nice for someone not expecting it.   But I think I know more people who are inspired by the idea of it being an opportunity for doing good who are principally hopeful that others take the opportunity.

My own reaction to those who have an awful time of it is more frequently simply paralysis.   There are some experiences that are just awful with no redeeming feature to them.

When confronted with such situations, instead of making suggestions and offering bright ideas (Hey, why don’t you just do X?) my response is more often that of Job’s friends – not in the poetic part of the book where they blame everything on the one who is suffering and offer sage advice from their superior position to let him know what to do to improve his lot – put in the narrative tale itself, where they are struck mute by his anguish and simply sit with him for three days saying nothing.  Instead of solving people’s problems, sometimes that’s the best thing you can do.

About that, the biggest problem, I have nothing really to say.   But there are two others I’ve had some thoughts on recently: the massive crass materialism of the season and the fact that for many of us it is the one time of the year when we go out of our way to enjoy the presence of those we love and show real concern for others we are either reasonably or only remotely connected with.  Why once a year?

I’m not going to talk about the economic realities of the crass materialism, the need for businesses to have the season to make a profit for the year, and thus keep people employed, and keep the economy afloat – all things for which we can be grateful indeed.  Nothing like economic crisis to long for the good ole days when there was money to be spent.   But the materialism I’m talking about is more on the personal level, the crass desire for more and more and more and more.  I understand it.   Most of us were raised in it.   And the holiday season more than any other promotes it.

How ironic.   The actual *point* of the Christmas season is to give, not to receive.   And to give out of love and gratitude, not necessity and obligation, or a desire to impress.    Even though I am not a Christian, I resonate deeply with the actual basis and meaning of the season.  It is a severely anti­-material message.   The Christmas story is about how God, for no benefit to himself, sent his Son into the world as an infant.  His Son came not because he would get a solitary good thing out of it.  He came into a world of pain in order to suffer a life of hardship and poverty with the ultimate goal of being publicly tortured to death, for the sake of others.  To help others.  As an act of grace for others.  To bring salvation to the world.

The season is to reflect on that infant taking this upon himself and to be grateful for the incomprehensible gift that has been received.

But we have turned it into the opposite.   Kids are raised to think of nothing except what they are going to *get*.   And they grow up like that.  We all grew up like that.  It’s about us.   Our presents.  What we can get from others to make ourselves happy.  Ugh.

At the same time – to heighten the irony – it comes in the season where, at least as adults, we work hard to foster the idea that this is the time to be nice to each other, and pleasant, and jovial, and helpful, and considerate.   And so the materialism (starting now at Halloween) is coupled with a sense that we really should be better people.   And it lasts for the season.   But hy do we need a point in the calendar to be self-consciously decent, loving human beings?

OK, so these are my dark thoughts of Christmas.   But I’ve recently been thinking about the upside of the materialism and the seasonality of the holiday.   I need to say that I am not Pollyanna about the problems, and never will be.  But I am starting to see how they may not be an entirely bad thing (quite apart from the arguments based on the US economy and that it is indeed nice to be around nice people for a while).

My thinking actually has been motivated by something completely different.   My exercise routine.  Go figure.

For most of my life I’ve been a believer in exercise; I was always active as a kid, not a great athlete but always doing things, baseball, tennis, running.  As an adult my activities shifted (racketball!)  and I slipped away a bit on and off, but for many years now I’ve exercised regularly, whether in the gym on a cross trainer and lifting weights or running (which I hate) or walking (which I love) and so on.

about a few years ago I started getting serious about core exercises and stretching.   Getting older.  Aches and pains.   Back problems.  Hip pain.   Need to keep the body not just moving but reasonably supple and as pain free as possible.    And I’ve noticed something.  This kind of exercise in many, many ways is less satisfying than, say, doing something seriously aerobically or lifting weights, where there is something actually to measure – HA!  Ran six miles!  Ha! Got my heartrate up to 160 for five minutes!  OHa! Benchpressed 220!   Or …. Something that can be quantified.   Now it’s – OK, I did 15 minutes of core.   Uh, well, OK.

But I’ve noticed something.  Some months ago I started forcing myself doing five minutes of core (for the back) right out of bed.  Then decided, hey, I can do ten minutes – why not?  / Then it went to 15.  Then to 20.  And so on.

It’s a great routine for me.  And started with me doing *something* but not a *big* thing.   And just recently I’ve wondered if Christmas can have that effect on some people.

Yes, it’s a lot of obligation and necessity and buying and it’s tiring and often aggravating.  But it’s also the pleasure of seeing people open presents and realizing that you’ve made someone happy.  And yes, it’s once a year.   But again, it brings a good feeling.

And the point is, good feelings can be addictive.  So I wonder if, for many people (I’m not talking about the hopelessly lonely and depressed here), even though it’s obligatory and seasonal, it kind of “catches on” and makes them more inclined to be like that generally.   To give things when there’s no obligation.  To buy things not just for themselves but for others.  To give money to those who could really need and would really appreciate it.  And not just once a year, but as a life style.

I have no way to know how to see if that’s right, except anecdotally.  I think maybe it does work that way for me, at least.   I’m not always like that throughout the year (oh boy am I not), but I wonder if I’m more like that because there’s one time of the year when I focus on being like that.

In any event, it’s a hopeful thought.

My other hopeful thought is that you have a wonderful Christmas, calm, restful, happy, joyful among those you love; and if it is a very hard time for you, please know that there are happy and kind thoughts speeding your way from here.


Blog Year in Review, 2019!
More on the Case Against Miracles: Michael Shermer Guest Post

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Judith  December 25, 2019

    Thank you for this and Merry Christmas, Dr. Ehrman!

  2. Avatar
    Omatseyin Binitie  December 25, 2019

    Thanks for the kind wishes. Hope you also have a great & joy filled Christmas!

  3. Avatar
    AstaKask  December 25, 2019

    “These virtues are formed in man by his doing the actions … The good of man is a working of the soul in the way of excellence in a complete life.” – Aristotle

    Merry Christmas!

  4. Avatar
    fishician  December 25, 2019

    Merry Christmas! My wife and I have done more Christmas activities than usual this year, and it’s been great. It helps if sometimes you just turn your brain off (it needs a rest at times!) and just enjoy, and share that enjoyment with others.

  5. Avatar
    AndrewJenkins  December 25, 2019

    You wrote, “The season is to reflect on that infant taking this upon himself and to be grateful for the incomprehensible gift that has been received.” Gratitude can lead to a commitment and involvement in positive change, no matter how small.

    Recently I bought a copy of the ‘Big Issue’ from a homeless person; inside I learned that one of the vendors in Nottingham has just died. He had almost nothing but, as they said, he would do anything for anyone, if he could, and he really cared about every one of his regular customers. The message of love gives all of us, no matter how poor, the opportunity and hope of a meaningful future through showing love for our neighbours.

    I think that Jesus is certainly not the only source of such inspiration, but he can be one source, and it is a message from which we can benefit and which we may appreciate.

    Happy Christmas to all, Andrew.

  6. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  December 25, 2019

    Both of my parents passed away 12 years ago. Since then, the holidays have never been the same for me and my siblings. We’re scattered in different locations, but this year we made an effort to spend time together and it’s made life much more joyful.

  7. Robert
    Robert  December 25, 2019

    Speaking of dark thoughts about Christmas, there was a new 3+ hour version of A Christmas Carol produced by the BBC/FX Ridley Scott a few days ago. Very dark! Many people did not like it because it was so very dark. But I liked it a lot. It was very realistic about how the business practices of Scrooge/Marley were responsible for deaths. It was realistic in that Scrooge was already ‘haunted’ by Marley, speaking to him as if he were still alive even before being visited by his supernatural ghost. The ghost of Christmas past was an angry old bastard, the ghost of Christmas present was Scrooge’s sister. And Scrooge’s repentance at the end was realistic in its modesty and sincerity. My son is a big fan of Dickens and he hated it. (We also saw a traditional stage version version the next evening, which we both liked.) Maybe there’s something wrong with me, but I really, really liked the dark version!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2019

      Interesting. Missed it. I used to read it out loud with my then wife every Christmas Eve. Fantastic novella.

  8. Avatar
    Pegill7  December 25, 2019

    Thanks Bart. What you say makes a lot of sense.

  9. Avatar
    longdistancerunner  December 25, 2019

    As a season ticket holder for an NHL team and a MLB team and subscriber to “ The Athletic” and many other sports magazines, Christmas to me is a pain in the rear end.
    Three days of no games and the morning “ Hot Stove” on the MLB network at 7 am not resuming until January 2nd!!!
    Oh well, big home stand for my NHL team starting Sunday.. 4 home games in a week!
    And I’ll be sitting in the front row on the glass!
    I’m about a week older than you Bart.
    It’s great about the excessive!!! Keep it up!
    I’ve run 100,000 miles since 1977… coached, wrote running articles for a newspaper and was a high school cross country coach.
    Had prostate cancer surgery on August 11th.
    Well not surgery… HIFU.
    It was supposed to get me back to running!! A new FDA approved treatment….. HA!
    8 weeks of recovery.. 2 trips to the ER and pneumonia..
    Still, fit in 300 miles running since then.. I was surprised..ha
    Re-reading your book on the Apostle Paul, trying to re-read Albert Schweitzer’s book and a biography of Rube Waddell..
    Thanks for your books!!

  10. Avatar
    blclaassen  December 25, 2019

    “Crass materialism”… agreed. Ironic, too, how the Christian message is totally lost at Christmas. I read a comment in the local paper recently that “Traditions are just peer pressure from dead people.” Personally my holidays have been infinitely less stressful once I gave up the “gift race” and stopped participating in the madness, giving what I can to charity and then relaxing. It’s great! Merry Christmas, Bart and thank you for all you do!

  11. Avatar
    TL8476mn  December 25, 2019

    Thanks, Bart. I am a little lonely today, and you made me feel better. I try to give during the year, things like sending an article by email I think would help to inform my friends better. No one reciprocates because sadly today people seldom read anything. I give away watches and other things I seldom use. What pleasure that gives to people !!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2019

      I’m sorry to hear about the loneliness; it sounds like you do the good little things that can make life meaningful. All best wishes for the season.

    • Avatar
      doug  December 26, 2019

      Thank you, TL8476mn, for your good works. I used to think that we can’t change the world. But every time we help someone else, we have in fact changed the world.

  12. Avatar
    doug  December 25, 2019

    The shared joy, giving, and emotional connection to others of the holiday season shows me there is hope for what humanity can be.

  13. Avatar
    ecafischer  December 25, 2019

    Thank you a million times over, Bart. They’ve been [in evangeleze-speak] a real blessing to me; ‘specially knowing of your religious background. I also came up through the evangelical faith, my father being an evangelist and then pastor. As I’ve worked my way through and out of that I now, w/ a late start, am feeding my God?-given brain/intellect. You’re sharing what you’ve learned is helping me feed what I’ve been starved of. It’s been quite a journey. Thank you for helping me along the way.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2019

      Sounds like a journey indeed! All best as you continue along it…

  14. John4
    John4  December 25, 2019

    Merry Christmas, Bart!

    Thank you so much for your blog! 😀

  15. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  December 25, 2019

    In your opinion do you think Jesus suffered from messiah complex?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2019

      I’m not sure what you mean.

      • Avatar
        John Uzoigwe  December 26, 2019

        Messiah complex : The belief that one is destined to save others

        • Bart
          Bart  December 28, 2019

          No, I don’t think Jesus believed he would bring salvation. He beleived he would be appointed to be the king in the coming kingdom of God.

    • Telling
      Telling  December 26, 2019

      Hi John,

      I’ve written a couple of books on the idea, “Messiah Complex”.

      In my most recent book, a “fake messiah” whose name is Dortus effects to carry out all the Jewish so-called prophesies, even to be treated badly and cruciied. He is mistaken for Jesus and conventional wisdom becomes that Jesus was crucified, yet he was not.

      In my earlier novel called “The Steps”, under the eyes of a Palo Alto, California computer programmer, a fake Messiah comes upon the scene and convinces everyone that the end of the world is at hand and that he has come to save the world. It turns out, however, that our thoughts create our reality (a genuine metaphysical truth), and this nut has convinced enough people that the world truely is ending, and thus the world is indeed ending in the eyes of just about everyone. Our hero, the software programmer, must convince the world that the world really is not ending, in which case the world will not be ending, the world truthfully replicating the mind of the people, and he does this through a popular social media game called “The Simpsons”, and we find Bart Simpson to be battling the “Messiah”, and you can probably guess who ultimately wins that one,

      I think that’s what you mean by “Messiah Complex”. The story of Jesus crucified is a good role model for nuts to follow and imitate. But I personally do not believe that Jesus was even arrested or crucified. It’s a great story for the ages but it makes no sense. If Jesus was crucified as in the story, then he was not the learned master, But I think he was the learned master and I believe he was not crucified, that was made up for a particular reason,

  16. Avatar
    veritas  December 25, 2019

    Bart, I will once again say what I have said previously, this is truly your best side. I am close to your age, sixty, and I made it a point to come and listen to you at the Defenders conference in Chicago. I brought your book, How Jesus Became God, because I wanted you to sign it. I asked you a personal question, because I felt awkward and strange in my transition to agnostic, and you cheerfully responded in honesty. The highlight of my trip was meeting you, and didn’t really care about the debate because it changes nothing. It may sway a few here and there.You have created a following. Your academic/intellectual research is appreciated by many. This Christmas blog, has been for many years my thoughts . I too, just joined a gym, not to be Arnold Swartznegger, but to try and negate the small aches and pains you speak of in our latter years.. I wonder too, why we wait all year to have deep thoughts about others, who are less fortunate, while often forgetting the meaning of Christmas. When I drove for UPS, I was amazed on the number of gifts by the tree, often higher than the tree, when making a delivery. My reaction would be , ” wow that’s alot of gifts”. and the people would say, we spoil our kids. Our biggest obstacles is, poverty and suffering. Sometimes that old cliche, survival of the fittest, is more aptly manifested in a world of self indulgence than compassion. But my point to your strength, Bart, I want to emphasize. What makes me follow your ideas and thought is the uniqueness of your character. Being a non-believer and than writing something like this blog, opens the door to many, believers and non-believers alike. Very few can pull this off. I like Dan Barker somewhat, but I find him harsh, denouncing and divisive at times. That is not you. Sometimes I think if your early adult years as a fundamental evangelical/pastor have imprinted some of your deep personal thoughts you still hold for life. I know you have said your wife is a Christian and not a part of your audience. If I may ask, does not living with someone you love and who still believes, have an effect on you? Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2019

      Many thanks, I really appreciate it. My wife is not a a kind of “doctrinally-based believer” in any sense, at all. She is really an incredibly learned English scholar who appreciates the sophistication of philosophical theology whose religion is more of an awe in the presence of an amazing universe than anything like “belief” in certain views. So questions of “what do you actually believe” almost *never* come up. (E.g., do you believe in the Virgin birth; or the literal resurrection; or the deity of Christ; or life after death? Not an issue….) That seems weird to a lot of American’s, I know, who tend to think that Christianity is a matter of agreeing with a number of doctrinal statements. But historically it was never that kind of thing….

  17. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  December 26, 2019

    Thank you. It has been a wonderful journey.

  18. Avatar
    stokerslodge  December 26, 2019

    Bart, re “ That seems weird to a lot of American’s, I know, who tend to think that Christianity is a matter of agreeing with a number of doctrinal statements. But historically it was never that kind of thing….“ I’m a little surprised at (“historically it was never that kind of thing”) in view of the fact that the Christian church spent centuries carefully defining and imposing it’s doctrines and creeds and excommunicating dissenters. Could you explain/expand a little more please? Best wishes for a very Happy New Year!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 28, 2019

      Church leaders did in various periods. Most Christians throughout history have had no clue what the educated theologians were talking about. Being Christian meant going to church, saying prayers, participating in worship, living in a certain way. It wasn’t agreeing to propositional truths. That is really a modern development, with some notable but rare exceptions

  19. Avatar
    rjackson@cscos.com  December 26, 2019

    Thank you Dr E! Your kind and thoughtful writing is a great Christmas gift!!!

  20. Telling
    Telling  December 26, 2019

    There is a simple rule of living that will change anyones predicament: Your thoughts today create your reality of tomorrow. Change your thoughts and your life will change.

    Think positively and your world will perfectly reflect it. Be nice to people and people will be nice to you.

    This is the underlying message of the learned master: “If you truly believe, it will happen”; “Knock and the door will be opened”; etc. Pretty simple stuff.

    The basis is, the physical world is illusory. Our thoughts create our reality. When we change our thoughts our reality will follow. Very simple.

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