Liturgical Musings

My church upbringing was in a denomination that didn’t have a lot of time for formal liturgy. I don’t mean that our worship services were completely spontaneous and unstructured; there was a formula or pattern to these things and we followed it. You might call that an informal liturgy, I suppose, but there wasn’t a lot of formulaic responsive recitation or reading. “Lift up your hearts” “We lift them up to the Lord” or “May the peace of Christ be with you” “And with your spirit also” didn’t have a place in our services.

The closest thing we had to a liturgical formula was that the pastor would frame our participation in the Communion with I Corinthians 11:23-26:  Paul’s explanation of what’s supposed to happen in the living ritual. And that was his personal practice, not a denominational custom or mandated liturgy. Oh, and we’d usually end our services by saying “the Grace” to one another: “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all evermore. Amen.”

With this background, naturally as a teen I was a little suspicious of formal liturgies. How can worship be genuine, it was reasoned, if you’re just going through the motions of reading or reciting the same old stuff every week?  How does that really touch wherever you are right now?

As an adult with a vastly broader church experience, I look at this reasoning and see a lot of missing the point. I’ve seen some of the drivel that some people unfortunately come up with when left to their own devices. It’s like people writing their own wedding vows: some people do a good job and create something both personal and meaningful, others shouldn’t have been let near the process without close editorial supervision. You never know what you’re going to get.

Beside that, it’s rather arrogant to assume that anyone worshipping with the aid of a formal liturgy is only going through the motions. And by implication, all “free” and “spontaneous” worship is always pure and genuine.

Real worship isn’t what your mouth is doing so much as what your heart is doing. I can remember plenty of completely spontaneous “times of worship” in which I was just going through the motions, pursuing an emotional high and not the Lord. In certain circles you look really spiritual if you’re willing to dance up and down the aisles – and I’ve done that from sincere and insincere motives – but there’s no place for any feelings of superiority over those whom God meets in quietness and stillness and the reading of time-honoured words.

So I’ve made my peace with liturgy as an adult, more or less. I think one of the main driving forces in my personal reconciliation with formal liturgy was spending several years in Charismatic-type churches and watching them botch Christmas by seemingly failing to acknowledge Our Lord’s birth in worship. When you fetishise not using hymns, apparently that means you can’t sing Christmas carols either, not even the ones replete with truth like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”. And so Jesus’ birthday gets sidelined and ignored by His own church.

Sorry. Pet peeve of mine. Anyway, what most liturgical-type churches do really well is the church calendar. It’s an entirely different mode and model of a worship service, in which any one service is conceived as being part of a larger, ongoing flow of service through the year, from Advent through Christmas, Epiphany, Lenten, Easter, Pentecost and right around to the end of what’s called “Ordinary Time” and the start of the next cycle. The focus seems more long-term and ongoing than immediate and “today”.

Ideally, we should be able to find a way to have both. There’s a place for spontaneous worship that breaks out of stale patterns and finds God at work in ways that no-one expected. The Holy Spirit doesn’t tend to like it when our formulas become so all-encompassing that He doesn’t have any room to do something different, but sometimes even our “free and spontaneous worship” just becomes another formulaic straitjacket for Him. Dancing before the Lord can be a wonderful expression of liberated devotion to hHim, or it can be someone looking like a prat because they think on some level that God can only really meet them in a place of emotional high.

These days, I approach a liturgical formula like “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God” “It is right for us to give thanks and praise” and I think “you know what? It is right”. And that’s a truth you don’t often encounter outside of a liturgical-type worship service. Much of the formal liturgy is written the way it is because it expresses certain truths that have withstood the test of centuries.

Oh, some of it’s dross. Often the bits that have been generated by people meddling with the originals in the name of “updating” them, in my experience. And unless you’re careful to maintain a worshipful heart, just mouthing words will do you no good at all. But that’s true whatever our corporate worship services look like.



Remember, Remember

Remember, remember the 5th of November

Gunpowder, treason and plot

I see no reason why Gunpowder Treason

Should ever be forgot.

People in the UK don’t have fireworks on the Fourth of July. That much ought to be obvious, but I’ve met enough Americans that just don’t stop and think long enough to really realise this on a conscious level.

Anyway, our fireworks happen on the fifth of November, and for a different reason.

November 5th in Britain is vastly different, weatherwise, from July 4th in Texas. It’s cold and damp; not actually freezing (mostly), but weather for wearing coats and gloves and for having bonfires. Which you can actually do, usually, because unlike Texas, the British Isles are not a disguised desert in which rain is a legendary creature rarer than the chimaera. Trying to set a bonfire in Texas around the Fourth of July is asking to set the entire state alight. No exaggeration.

The bonfire also provides a welcome break from the cold and dark of a British November, but that’s not its primary reason for existing.

Just like the fireworks, and like the Liberty Bell and the Easter Egg, the bonfire is a symbol connected intrinsically to the reason we have a celebration at all.

(Incidentally, Brits definitely get the better deal with Easter Eggs. American Easter Eggs are small, plastic, and filled with various artificial-tasting American candies. British Easter Eggs are a hollow shell only slightly smaller than an ostrich egg, made out of chocolate (actual chocolate, too, not that awful Hersheys rubbish) and filled with vastly better-tasting British sweets. No contest)


The difference in history behind the US and UK fireworks days is emblematic of the difference in basal attitude between our two countries towards government. And with a US election just around the corner, it seemed an appropriate subject.

The Fourth of July is, of course, an Independence Day. In popular American myth, it’s the day when the heroic American patriots told the evil British tyrants that they weren’t having it any more, dumped perfectly good tea into Boston harbour and shot at the Redcoats until they all went home in disgrace. Give it a couple of hundred years more and Paul Revere will ride through town at midnight distributing presents of ammunition to all the good little redneck boys and girls.

Um, excuse me. I shouldn’t be facetious. This is serious stuff. The birth of a new nation by telling its former colonial power to butt out, and making it stick. The wisdom and foresight of both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution with its Bill of Rights.

The point I’m trying to make is that the essence of the Fourth of July is the celebration of independence. From whom? Well, we’ll look at that in a minute.

The Fifth of November, by contrast, celebrates the failure of an act of terrorism. I should probably explain a little for the benefit of my non-British readership.

The potted popular version is that back in the age when Europeans had long and bloody wars over which variety of Christian they were going to be, a group of Roman Catholic conspirators led by, or at least aided and abetted by, Guy Fawkes, plotted to blow up the overwhelmingly Protestant Parliament while the equally Protestant King James I (of England and VI of Scotland) was visiting. (Yes, the king visits Parliament. By tradition the Sovereign has to ask Parliament’s permission to enter; he or she may not do so merely as a matter of right).

The conspirators smuggled barrels of gunpowder into the chambers below the central House, where the aforementioned Guy Fawkes was to wait until he heard the sounds of Parliament in session above, light the fuse and make his getaway.

The scheme might have succeeded, leaving a power vacuum in which most of the powerful Protestant Lords were dead and the closest claimant to the throne was a Catholic prepared to unleash a new round of Bloody Mary’s burnings and torturings of Protestant heretics. British Protestants don’t have a spotless record when it comes to treatment of Catholics, but at least the official persecution stopped short of massed burnings at the stake.

It might have succeeded. The fact that it didn’t was due to the fact that a couple of the conspirators tried to warn four prominent Catholic Members of Parliament not to attend that day, and the four, whether from putting their country ahead of their religious allegiance or from a simple rejection of these violent means, in turn informed the King.

Guy Fawkes was caught red-handed and his ring of co-conspirators was apprehended. And for his act of treason against the lawful Sovereign and Government, he was put to death by burning. (It was a savage age in many ways, and the people were incensed. No pun intended).

Hence the bonfire, to remember his death, and the fireworks, to remember the Gunpowder Plot.

The point here is that the essence of the Fifth of November is the celebration of the preservation of government, and that’s the big difference.

For Britons, by and large, government is generally viewed as benign. Its purpose is to restrain lawlessness and allow decent ordinary people to live out their lives in relative peace. The Royal Family is emblematic of this; the friendly, cosy, limited authority of a good father or mother in a family, extended to the scale of a nation. The Sovereign of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland isn’t considered “the Father of the Nation” in the way the Tsars of Russia were, but it’s a metaphor. National government is fatherly, motherly, a close, familial authority which is, when the chips are down, for you, not against you.

This mindset might as well be Martian to most Americans (though if anything, Jupiter ought to be considered Britain’s presiding planetary power. King of the gods, and all that. Jupiterian, perhaps). The basal American attitude to government is that it’s at best a necessary evil. I sometimes suspect that a lot of Republicans are only narrowly removed from outright anarchism, but even a lot of Democrats seem to have a base-level distrust of government that even the most ardently republican (note the small “r”) Brit doesn’t.

Government seems to be viewed as the enemy. Necessary, perhaps, but needing to be caged and imprisoned and limited and controlled in order to keep the blighters honest. Give them the chance and they’ll turn on you in a heartbeat, eviscerate you and eat your lungs. The US political system of checks and balances is an institutionalised version of this mistrust of authority; no one agency has all of the power, because government is by nature untrustworthy.

Even at our most strongly pro-democracy, most Brits maintain a subliminal belief that the institution of government itself is basically trustworthy. While this is not true of any particular government or group of politicians (most of them, in fact, could do with having their feet held to the fire to keep the blighters honest), the integrity of the institution of governmental authority itself is not up for question. On some level, we trust government to at least try to act for the good of the country and its people, whether or not we trust the people involved to recognise what the good of the country is.

Americans are largely the inverse of this. They might place trust in individual political figures or parties, but the system itself, the institution, the nature of authority, is that it is an enemy and capable of great and nefarious evil. We’re free Americans! No-one tells us what to do! Hooah!

The Fourth of July celebrates freedom from the evil forces of government, embodied in the “foreign tyranny” (personally disputed on both counts, but let’s not get into that) of British rule.

The Fifth of November celebrates preservation of the government from evil forces. It’s a significant difference.

And on that note, I’ll leave all you Americans to go and vote on Tuesday, and all you Brits to reflect on the strange mindset that leads many Americans to vote the way they do. And I can’t even shoot up a single firework here in Texas to celebrate the day, because they’re not allowed to the general public within city limits.

The Memory of Sacrifice

Having US Memorial Day so close to Pentecost has the tendency to obscure one or the other.

In practice, Memorial Day is a public holiday, so the more important holy day of Pentecost doesn’t get a look in.

Memorial Day is one of the more accessible US national holidays for me. Akin to Remembrance Day in the UK but with added flag-waving (and commercialism in the form of sales), I can participate without feeling too much like an alien, something that I’ve not yet fully mastered on the Fourth of July.

Its juxtaposition this year with Pentecost has got me thinking: is there any real overlap between the two?

Perhaps. Memorial Day is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who have laid down their lives for the country. We celebrate our freedom and honour those serving today, because we owe that very freedom in large part to those who laid down their lives in the past.

Pentecost is our annual celebration as Christians of the Holy Spirit coming upon the early Church. One of His jobs – perhaps the main one – is to point to Jesus Christ. To remind us of His sacrifice which bought our freedom.

I can see a parallel.

Not to say that the sacrifices are the same, because they aren’t entirely, but they are akin.

Jesus didn’t fight in the way that soldiers do, but He did lay down His life. The sacrifices of our soldiers bought the freedom of our country. His sacrifice bought a greater freedom: the freedom to part with sin, be forgiven and made new, be brought into the right relationship with God that we were created for.

So in amongst the commercial selling and the patriotic flag-waving (neither of which are intrinsically wrong), I will be using this day as a prod to memory of another Sacrifice.

Out of the Miry Clay

When the snow melts on a jobsite, it leaves behind mud.

All of that water has to go somewhere, and so it just soaks into the dirt, producing mud.

In the sort of North Texas clay that exists where I work, it produces some of the worst sort of slimy, clingy, heavy, semi-liquid mud known to man.

Forget getting around in your 2-wheel-drive pickup truck; it can strand 4-wheel-drive vehicles, and even cause difficulty for things that run on tracks.

It’s one of the weather situations in which I, alone and on foot, can sometimes make better progress than a guy in a truck.

Not that it’s easy even for me. The mud sticks to my shoes, then more mud sticks to that, then more mud sticks to that. I end up with legs resembling golf clubs; great balls of congealed glop surrounding my workboots, so that each foot weighs about 5lbs and swells to the size of a small beach ball.

You think I’m exaggerating? Come and do my job for a day.

In addition, it’s slippery stuff, so that your feet lose a minimum of 3/4 of their regular traction, and it’s like walking on plate glass. Or more accurately, greased plate glass. The only way to walk in the stuff is doing a combination impression of an old man and a duck.

In addition, it’s cold. The pounds of unheated glop around your feet suck all the warmth from your toes, and sit there even after that radiating active cold into your boots.

It always puts me in mind of Psalm 40:

“I waited patiently for the Lord,

He inclined to me and heard my cry.

He drew me out of the miry pit;

Out of the miry clay”.

In the Psalm, the miry clay is symbolic of the troubles that surround us, and perhaps too of our own sins. Like Texas gumbo mud, they cling to us, weighing us down and hindering our free movement. They age us in the worst way, turning us from lightness and joy to sullen bitterness. Even out of the situation, the mud still clings, smearing itself on anything around that used to be clean.

But the Psalm doesn’t stop with God drawing us out of the mire. He sets our feet on a rock and gives us a firm place to stand.

Part of this necessarily has to mean cleaning the mud from our feet.

It doesn’t matter how good your workboots are if they are covered in slime. The mud will still act against friction, and even if you are set down on a rock, you can still slip and fall if your feet are muddy.

Anyone who has ever stepped from ankle-deep Texas clay mud onto a clean concrete building slab can testify to this.

Jesus doesn’t just take us out of the surrounding mud of sin. He cleans us as well; He enables us to stand.

And if we can stand, we can move freely. We can walk, run, leap, dance.

There’s a freedom that comes with being loosed from the grip of the mire that’s difficult to comprehend until you’ve experienced it.  Similarly, there’s a freedom in His grace, a lightness and liberty in walking free of sin.

In the run-up to Easter, it seems an appropriate thing to dwell on.

The Gift of Freedom

On the way into work the other day I was listening to the radio playing O Holy Night. This is a great carol, and it’s one I don’t think we really have that much in Britain. At least, I don’t remember singing it more than about once or twice in my youth.

Anyway, the version of the carol on the radio did the first verse, then skipped over the first half of the second verse and picked up again with “Chains shall He break, for the slave is our brother/And in His name all oppression shall cease”.

Wonderfully modern, egalitarian and Civil Rights-y, and quite apropos at the present time perhaps, but I kept thinking “that’s not how that verse begins!”

I memorise the words of songs. I just do; it’s not even something I have to expend effort on. The idea that someone might, after 40+ years of singing it, still not know all the words to O Come All Ye Faithful is baffling to me.

O Holy Night isn’t quite as familiar, so I had to think for a moment to recall the rest of Verse 2:

“Truly He taught us to love one another/His love is life, and His Gospel is peace”.

And I started to think “what is so objectionable about that that you felt a need to skip over it and go straight to the breaking of chains?” Bear in mind, this is the Christian station. Of all people they shouldn’t have a problem with the idea of Jesus being part of the Christmas season.

I mean, when I first heard the carol, it was the bit about breaking chains and the slave being our brother that made me uncomfortable and not sure it belonged in a Christmas carol. It called to mind things I’d rather not think about, especially at Christmas time: the bad old days of the early 1800s, the pre-Wilberforce times of the slave trade, Dickensian child labour and debtors’ prisons, the ruthless pre-Shaftesbury industrial capitalism that saw poor people and children as a means of profit. More, the (at the time) barely-grasped American system of colour-based slavery and its associated racism and discrimination, from the same period.

Why on earth would you skip over the apparently innocuous stuff about love and peace to focus on that disturbing morass of past sin?

I don’t know, but I can think of at least a couple of possibilities.

The first is that it’s a political statement. Perhaps, we might guess, sung by someone in the 1960s during the era of the Civil Rights movement when that was the really appropriate part for the times. The breaking of chains, and the fact that “the slave”, ie black people who had been in actual slavery until the Civil War, was indeed “our brother”, which is to say, our equal in every way as white people.

This is an important truth. In these days of debate over racism, justice and oppression in the wake of recent events in New York, it’s one we may need to hear again. No matter the outward packaging of skin pigmentation or its lack, gender, facial features or human circumstances, be you in chains or be you free, be you powerless or a power holder, we are sisters and brothers.

It’s easy as a white male, thus a representative of the fully enfranchised, to say this. It’s another thing entirely to really do it in a way that means it to those on the outside or the margins. We all tend to view life through the lens of our own experience, and since we don’t personally experience any discrimination, it’s all too easy to suppose that it doesn’t exist. Or the other way around. If we’ve experienced discrimination in some way, it’s easy to magnify that up to the scale of a major national crisis involving the entire population of our identity group.

The truth is probably somewhere in between, but let’s not be smug about this. The problem may well be closer to home than we’d like to believe, and it’s our responsibility as representatives of the group that has power to examine ourselves first. Being cruel and unloving is, after all, the natural bent of fallen humanity.

But that’s only one of the reasons I can think of to skip the first half of the verse, and in some ways it’s one that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Loving one another as Jesus taught ought to go hand in hand with the breaking of chains and the ceasing of oppression.

Is it that it mentions the Gospel?

I personally like to maintain that a lot of the US church’s sense of being persecuted is a load of old cobblers. It isn’t persecution to have someone wish you “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas”. It isn’t persecution to have atheists free to buy advertising space to put up billboards alongside the Christian ones telling us how they believe you don’t have to have God in the equation to be a good person. It isn’t persecution when someone makes a joke at your expense as a believer. It’s persecution when people throw stones at your kids or try to drown them in the river because your family trusts in Jesus. It’s persecution when you get fired without just cause from your place of work just because you have a Bible in your own personal vehicle. It’s persecution when you run the risk of being jailed or killed simply because you believe differently to the people around you. This is what people in other parts of the world face on a daily basis. Let’s stop minimising their sufferings by appropriating the word “persecution” for our own light and momentary troubles, ok?

Right, soapbox moment over. Back to topic. What I was trying to say before I interrupted myself was that though we aren’t experiencing anything reasonably definable as persecution, that’s not to say that we might not face opposition. There are people who would like nothing better than to see Christianity removed from the public sphere, and there’s a tendency among ourselves as Christians in some quarters to unilaterally skip over anything that we think might offend someone. “I’m offended” is the siren-song of our time, and often seems to mean “I’ve seen something I didn’t really like” rather than “this is insulting on a personal level”.

I’ve complained about being offended a couple of times, like to the store selling those crooked and broken fake teeth for kids as “British teeth”. This feeds into that popular but bizarre American myth that the land of my birth has really bad dentistry, but it is insulting to my entire nation and there’s no call for it. But I don’t really like to pull the “I’m offended” card; most of the time it feels like it’s my responsibility to suck it up.

Anyway, despite my own qualms it seems easy for some people to claim offence, and there are people, including followers of Jesus, who use the cover of offendedness in order to try and avoid seeing anything that makes them uncomfortable. And unfortunately the attitude is prevalent enough that some of us want to remove the possibility of conflict by glossing over those things we think are likely to offend. Very few of us actually relish the thought of conflict. Better to avoid the likelihood by censoring ourselves, right?

Whether it was censorship or self-censorship (or something else entirely) that axed the reference to the Gospel I don’t know. But the link is a powerful and informative one.

You can’t have the breaking of chains and the slave being our brother without the teaching of Christ to love one another and the Gospel of peace. The one arises from the other.

The New Testament didn’t directly advocate the immediate abolition of the institution of Roman slavery. A persecuted minority faith already believed by the authorities to be seditious has no call to be doing that. But it did sow the seeds of its eventual destruction. If masters and slaves both had the same Master in Christ, then they truly were brothers. The positional inequality under the law would eventually crumble, made nonsensical by a people who ignored its implications to follow the command of Christ to love one another.

Trying to have the breaking of chains and the ceasing of oppression without the Gospel of peace is all very social justicey, but it ends up, if it doesn’t start, depending entirely on human effort in political change through top-down reformation or bottom-up revolution. Not that achieving social justice through political action is or should be anathema to followers of Christ, but that it isn’t separate from the Gospel of peace. Because as terrible as it is and was, there are other chains than the ones of literal slavery. There are all manner of bondages and oppressions in the world, sown liberally like tares by the evil one and all tracing back to that great master bondage of Adam and his race to sin.

Those chains were broken almost 2000 years ago on a Roman instrument of judicial execution. But what of the follow-on corollary, that “the slave is our brother”?

It’s very easy as those who have been set free to think of those still in slavery not as brothers to whom we must go but as enemies that we need to fight. I’m not going to say much more than that right now; I’m just going to leave that out there where we can reflect on it.

The message of Christmas is all about the coming of the Deliverer. My initial misgivings about those lines about slavery and the breaking of chains not really belonging in a Christmas carol were, in fact, wrong. After all, didn’t He come to set us free? All the way free, as in the day of Midian’s defeat (Isaiah 14), doing away with the heavy yoke of oppression and making peace with God and men?

What better context than the songs of His Advent for that sort of idea?

Jesus: God’s gift of freedom.

To Santa or not to Santa?

My wife grew up in a world without a Santa Claus. Her parents were and are very conscientious in focusing their lives around the real story of Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection, and as part of that, didn’t want their children growing up to believe that just like Santa, Jesus was a story their parents told them. From the outset, they were informed that Santa was something that other children might believe in, but that he wasn’t real. Oh, they still got stockings and presents and all that, but Santa Claus was not held to be responsible.

My own upbringing was more conventional in that regard. My parents did the whole Father Christmas thing, with hanging up stockings, going to see him in a big department store, leaving a mince pie and a drink out. I think we even wrote him letters. It was all part of Christmas. And somewhere along the line, in a process that I don’t remember with any sense of trauma, I joined the grown-up world of those who were in on the secret.

Needless to say, once we started having children, there needed to be some discussion between the two of us over the subject of what we were going to do with our kids about Father Christmas.

After what I took to be a preliminary conversation about it, I came into the room just in time to hear my wife boldly proclaiming the truth that Santa wasn’t real, that he was a story that a lot of other families invited their kids to believe. I forget the exact way she put it.

Not one of our most successful instances of communication, but there was no way I could undo what she had done, so somewhat reluctantly I went along with it. There was no way I was going to come in and say “Mommy’s lying to you, kids; Santa is real”. But I might have handled things a bit differently.

There seems to be a rising trend among Christian parents to follow my wife’s parents in their early footsteps. Increasingly, as with this blog right here, we’re presented with the suggestion that it might be wiser to avoid the whole Santa thing. It’s argued that Santa promotes a legalistic mindset of “do good and get rewarded”, that Father Christmas functions as a sort of god, that it sets up another figure in opposition to Jesus to compete for kids’ attention over the holiday season, that it produces covetous desire and acquisitiveness, that it forces Christian parents to lie to their kids, that it blurs the line between fantasy and reality, that it promotes the idea that “maybe Jesus isn’t real either”.

I can see the point of all these arguments. They’re cogent, well-reasoned and reasonable. But I can’t help thinking that if belief in Santa was as pernicious as some Christians seem to be coming to believe, most of us would have turned out a lot more screwed-up than we are. If presenting Father Christmas to your kids as real promotes all the things we’re told it does, wouldn’t we all be legalistic, acquisitive, idolatrous hardened atheists?

My wife’s the only person of my generation that I know of who was raised without a belief in Santa Claus. And it’s interesting to note that of the two of us, she’s the one that more often struggles with legalism.

Maybe part of that is just that she has a natural tendency in that direction, and if her parents had done the whole Santa thing it would only have reinforced that tendency. But we’re never told what would have happened.

Maybe my family were the odd ones. Maybe it was the particular way we dealt with Father Christmas that minimised the damage, so to speak. But if so, there might be things we can learn from it.

I remember that in our house, Father Christmas was much more limited in his influence than he appeared in some of my school friends’ worlds. Father Christmas was only responsible for stocking presents, which were the various cheap-and-cheerful extra gifts of limited monetary value, good for an hour or two’s entertainment. Stocking presents might have had one or two larger items, but they seldom included any single gift that might be valued at more than £5 or £10 these days, if that much. Father Christmas had nothing to do with the “main” presents under the tree; those were from family. And those, by strict family custom, were not to be opened until after church in the morning and Christmas dinner at lunchtime, whereas stocking presents could be opened as soon as everyone was awake.

In this way, by limiting both the scope and value of “his” giving, we said without saying that Father Christmas was a fun addition to Christmas but not the main event. Because a set of coloured pencils can only go so far in competing with a Lego Space Cruiser and Moonbase.

Also, while we were carefully disciplined to write thank-you letters to our family for the gifts they had given us, somehow the notion of writing a thank-you letter to Santa never came up.

We of course didn’t really like writing thank-you letters – what child wouldn’t rather be playing with what they’ve received? – so we weren’t going to insist that we extend the chore. But this functioned as another subtle signal that Father Christmas wasn’t real. You didn’t have to say thank you to him.

Santa also wasn’t used as a behaviour-modifying threat, or at least, not to any great degree. I don’t remember a lot of “Father Christmas won’t bring you any presents” sort of talk from my parents. Maybe it was there and I’ve forgotten, but in any case the threat was a minor one. Father Christmas was only responsible for the little extra presents of our stockings anyway. Main presents were from family; if you needed to please anyone it was Mum and Dad. And what parent deliberately inflicts the idea on their kids that parental love and gifts are contingent on their behaviour anyway?

Perhaps, though, one of the main distinguishing features of the way we handled Father Christmas was a sort of linguistic distinction between how we talked about him and how we talked about God and Jesus.

Jesus did miracles. These were discussed as real things that really happened. God was omnipotent anyway; why shouldn’t He be able to make remarkable things happen? He had angels, who were sort of like His helpers, and He could work His power through real flesh-and-blood people.

By contrast, Father Christmas was magic. The answer to questions like how he coped with houses without a chimney was something like “that’s part of his magic”. Magical reindeer, magical sleigh, magical guy himself. And magic was consistently treated around our house as a big game of “pretend”, not a real thing.

This might conceivably have had the effect of setting us up to believe that the spiritual world of Satan and his demons weren’t real either, except for the fact that when we heard about those sorts of things happening on the mission field and in other places, we talked about them in spiritual, not magical language.

The spiritual world of God, Jesus, miracles and science was real, the magical world was imaginary. Witches weren’t a real thing in the sense of actually existing with the power to turn people into toads, and it wasn’t until later that I began to find out about the existence of the other kind of witches who worshipped nature spirits or Satan himself. Conjurers and illusionists on TV did “magic tricks”, the unspoken inference being that this was a trick and not really happening in the way it was portrayed. Even one of the children’s programmes I watched on TV deliberately set up a situation in one episode in which things were shown to be trickery and not what they appeared.

The true Christmas story had a higher public profile back then, too. We put on a Nativity play at school most years, with every kid getting to be an angel or a shepherd or a camel or Mary or whatever. And this was at a public school (US meaning); we in the UK don’t have the ruthless Separation of Church and State that America does today. Jesus didn’t have to fight so hard for kids’ attention around His birthday.

Then, too, physical evidence of Father Christmas around our house was more sketchy than some of the stories you hear. Yes, there were the left-over dregs of drink and crumbs of mince pie, but Father Christmas was only one of numerous possible explanations for that, and that was the only physical evidence we were ever offered. When my sister and I started to disbelieve, my parents did nothing to throw us off the scent, unlike some families you hear about who seem really committed to their deception, planting boot-prints in the fireplace, leaving reindeer tracks in the snow outside, actually dressing up to fill the stockings and whatnot.

That would indeed seem to be blurring the line between fantasy and reality, and lying to your kids, but the way we treated Father Christmas was more like a game of pretend or actually being in a story, even if presented as “real”. My parents never, as far as I can recall, actually came out and said “Father Christmas is real”. I certainly don’t remember any traumatic incidence of “Mum! Michael at school says that Father Christmas isn’t real! He’s wrong, isn’t he?”. If I’d ever come home with a tale like that, I have no doubt that my parents would have just comforted me, sort of smiled a secret smile and said something along the lines of “well, what do you think about that?” The implication that Santa was real was certainly there, but there is a difference between misleading by implication and outright lying. And kids are grown-up enough to work it out.

Am I lying to my kids by implying to them that Santa is real? It’s an interesting question, and one I cannot answer for your conscience. But as a countervailing argument, I might ask whether I’m lying if I tell my kids that God will always take care of all of their physical needs when the book of Job is in the Bible?

Yes, technically the truth of the matter is that sometimes bad things do happen to Christians as well. Believers in Jesus aren’t inherently immune from starvation or earthquake or any other disaster. But telling a young child that bald fact is only going to undermine their confidence that they can rely on Him to take care of them. They are children. They don’t need to know that particular hard truth yet, not until they have a solid foundation of belief in His trustworthiness and faithfulness.

I wonder sometimes whether a lot of the blurring of lines that upsets us so much as adults isn’t just kids being kids. Their imaginations are potent and their sense of real and unreal is only beginning to develop, as it does naturally. In a sense, it makes no difference to a kid whether the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are really real or not; within the world of TMNT, which the child partially inhabits through watching them on TV, they are real. As they get older, the lines between what’s real and what’s not get firmer. It’s all part of the process of growing up.

I have no idea how normal a lot of this perspective on Father Christmas was. It might be that most Christian families did things in this sort of a way, but it could equally be just that we were different. It wouldn’t be the first time. In either case, the sense I got growing up was that Santa might or might not be real, but that Jesus certainly was real. The two weren’t in competition because they inhabited different worlds, any more than Batman could hang out with Spiderman (upside-down, presumably). Besides, Father Christmas wasn’t nearly as important as Jesus, so the issue of his reality or unreality was more minor. Finding out the truth didn’t destroy faith. It didn’t even destroy Christmas.

The family in this blog take things even further than mine did, deliberately and strategically planning for their kids to one day discover the secret, making it not a deception but a surprise.

I think that if I had a do-over on the matter of whether of not to present Father Christmas to my kids as real, this is the sort of way I’d want to go about it.

The Gospel According To “Frozen”


I finally saw the Disney film Frozen the other day. Yeah, I don’t get out much for new films. I blame long hours at my job and a limited interest in spending two hours of my valuable free time on a film.

Frozen is, of course, a Disney film. The Disney corporation are something like the McDonald’s of filmmaking: phenomenally successful, but an easy target. Certain quarters of the church seem prey to a kind of “Disney is evil” meme, and while I’m not usually drinking from that fountain, I do have a few hesitations about some of their recurring sub-themes.

For example, the “Father Knows Zilch” theme in which the hero or heroine’s father figure must be either incompetent or overbearing (or more frequently both), and the vapidity hierarchy among the Disney corporation’s princesses, in which the more worthless and helpless your character, the higher up in the pantheon you rank. Also, I can’t quite forget that these are the people that wimped Tinkerbell and turned Winnie-the-Pooh into an educational exercise in clue-finding and problem-solving. And this doesn’t even begin to take in some of their TV offerings.

However, Frozen is surprisingly good. I’d go so far as amazingly good. It’s beautifully animated with an engaging storyline – this is Disney; that’s what they’ve built their reputation on – but more than that, it’s replete with what appears to be Biblical subtext and unconscious Scriptural parallel.

There are themes of sacrifice, redemption, reconciliation, deliverance and the overturning of deceptions. It touches on rejection, fear, the lust for power and human imperfection. Moreover, it’s the first Disney film I’ve seen in forever that really gets what love actually is.

So I thought that in this post I’d see if we can split the ice apart and glimpse what may lie unconscious and hidden beneath.

Part One: In the Beginning…

As the Scripture itself does, Frozen begins in a state of primordial happiness. The two sisters Anna and Elsa share a close and happy relationship, secure in each other’s love and in the love of their parents, and both knowledgeable and comfortable with Elsa’s ice-generating powers. The trust that the parents have in both of their children is evidenced that when Elsa accidentally freezes Anna’s head, they take her “it was an accident!” at face value with no further word of blame. It’s a time of happiness, fun, and family intimacy.

The child-Elsa already has her power over ice; it’s something she was born with, a part of who she is. It’s accepted by her parents and something to be enjoyed and celebrated, rather like human nakedness in the Garden of Eden. There was literally no shamefulness in it. And like in the film Frozen, in the beginning human beings were functioning with all of their powers. Scientists estimate that people only use about 10% of their brains. I can’t imagine that before the Fall, God would have created human beings to only function at a tenth of their capacity; nowhere is it stated, but I expect that prior to Adam’s sin, we functioned at full capacity.

What is more, we were in close family relationship with one another and with our Father, God. Nothing stood in the way, and the doors were fully open.

But then it all began to go wrong…

Part Two: The Closing of the Doors

The childhood idyll is shattered, in the case of Anna and Elsa, by a dreadful calamity in which Anna’s mind is accidentally frozen. Her parents rush Anna to the only ones who can help: the trolls. Disney’s trolls are beings of solid rock; stones come to life, and are magical beings with great power and wisdom. In order to save the life of the younger princess, the troll king is forced to wipe Anna’s memory of her sister’s powers, and in order to protect both of their children, the king orders that the palace gates be closed and Elsa kept isolated until she can control her powers. The familial closeness ends. Separation enters the world.

Frozen may not have the deliberate disobedience that resulted in the door to Eden being closed in the face of Adam and Eve, but the effects are eerily similar. Where there was once closeness, now there is a cold distance and separation; a permanently closed door. The two sisters retreat into their own separate prisons of rejection and fear, and then the real calamity happens: Elsa and Anna’s parents are taken away in the ultimate separation: lost at sea in a terrible shipwreck.

This is the world after the Fall. Closed doors. Rejection. Fear. Death. The loss of our Father God. Separation from one another. But unlike the film, it was no accident. We did it to ourselves, deliberately.

Part Three: Anna’s Prison

Though Elsa is the one sequestered away behind the closed door, it’s her sister Anna’s prison which is most immediately obvious. Much of the story is told through her eyes, and so in the sequence of tragedy between the closing of the doors and her sister’s coronation, we are shown a glimpse of her shattered world.

After the closeness of those primeval days, the younger sister feels the separation deeply. Because of the way the troll king had to wipe her memory in order to save her life, she’s never allowed to know about her sister’s powers, nor about the accident and the reason why the doors were closed.

All she knows is that suddenly her sister rejected her and pushed her away.

When the doors of the palace are finally opened for her sister’s coronation, she’s so desperate for affection that she’ll fall for anything. She has no idea what love is, except that it’s what’s been missing since the doors closed, and so she can’t tell the difference between true love and powerful infatuation. So when the dashing but deceptive Prince Hans of the Southern Isles arrives and shows an interest in her, all she can think is that this is True Love. In a different princess story, she might even be right, but Disney finally seem to have worked out the difference between real life and a fairy tale with this one. Though Anna and Hans get engaged that very same day, this is not True Love.

Anna is a lot like many of us, spiritually speaking. Rejected and alone, knowing that True Love is desperately missing but not understanding why, we’re set up to fall for anything. We’ll set our hopes on any apparently dashing young prince who comes along, and bind ourselves to them double-quick before they can get away, just in the hopes of dulling the ache and emptiness. Where Anna is emotionally promiscuous – what we used to call “easy” – we are spiritually promiscuous, our judgement practically nonexistent and our hearts all over the place. Some of us try to dull the ache with alcohol or relationships or pleasure; the old trio of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll; but we’re completely unable to see how hollow and empty these things are. We’ll fall hard for any deceptive Hans that ventures along.

Part Four: Elsa’s Prison

Elsa is the one put away behind closed doors, but she’s also the one who understands why. Trying to control her powers so that she doesn’t hurt anyone else, she shuts herself off in order to protect the world from herself. Her coronation day song says it all: “Don’t let them in, don’t feel, be the good girl you always have to be”. She’s just as much a prisoner as Anna, though her prison is of a different making. She binds herself about with separation: rules and gloves and closed doors, all to protect the rest of the world from what she knows she’s capable of.

I don’t know about anyone else, but this is looking like religion to me.

The gloves and closed doors, “don’t feel; be the good girl you always have to be”. It’s the good son in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal. It’s the trappings of a religious separation that understands that people aren’t necessarily good, that is desperate to wall in the darkness so that it can’t do any damage. Elsa’s prison is one of fear – fear of hurting those she loves, but mostly of herself and her powers. So the gloves stay on and the doors stay shut and she strives and pretends to be the good girl she thinks she ought.

And then, inevitably, the gloves come off and the great secret is out. Elsa is something else.

Running away into the northern mountains, and unaware of the frozen disaster she is leaving in her wake, Elsa at last feels free to unleash her powers, up here where there’s no-one to be hurt by them. The “Let It Go” song could have been the start of a Going Bad, but the story has other ideas. Still, it’s laced with a bitterness against the rules and circumstances that contrived to force her hiding of herself. But running away is just another form of hiding.

Part Five: The Quest

Anna, inevitably, goes after her sister, leaving the deceptive Hans in charge and falling in with the ice merchant Kristoff.

In this, Anna to an extent switches symbolic roles (there’s a fair amount of this that goes on, but Frozen is no straight allegory, so we ought to expect this) and takes on the mantle of Christ. Determined to bring back fallen mankind and reconcile, God goes after us in the Person of Jesus.

Kristoff, appropriately given his name (the English version Christopher means “Christ-Bearer”), is in some ways more of a Christ stand-in. He’s the one that begins the process of melting Anna’s self-deception that what she feels for Hans is True Love; he’s the one who was raised by the trolls, in a symbolically other-worldly heaven populated by “love experts”. He’s one of the ones who demonstrates that love sometimes means leaving someone with what they think they want. Looking like a tramp but possessed of a high and noble wisdom, he is with Anna through her quest, as Jesus is with the disciples despite “having no beauty or majesty to attract us to Him”.

I should say a word about the trolls here. They don’t play that much of an active role in the story, but you see them called upon in times of great need when only their wisdom can help. I don’t want to say too much about them, but it seems deeply appropriate that it’s the people who are living stones (1Pe2:4-5) who are said to be “love experts” and who possess deep supernatural wisdom. So may it be!

But during the course of the quest, another accidental blast of Elsa’s icy powers freezes Anna’s heart, and only an act of True Love can save her.

This being Disney, we’re immediately led to the assumption that this is the mystical “True Love’s kiss” beloved of fairytale and twice beloved of Disney animations of the past.

It’s neither Kristoff nor Anna that makes the most overt declaration of what love is, however, but the comical brought-to-life snowman Olaf: “Love is putting the other person’s good above your own”. Ironically, it’s the one who has a literal heart of ice that not only explains to the frozen-hearted Anna what love is, but demonstrates it. Some people are worth melting for.

Part Six: An Act of True Love

Anna, of course, has a mind filled with fairy tales, and assumes that the only possible thing that an “act of True Love” could mean is a romantic kiss. She immediately dashes for Hans, the deceiver. It’s here that Hans shows his true colours: the thirteenth son of his family, he’s after a closer connection with royalty in order to gain power for himself. He not only won’t kiss her, but he puts out the fire and candles in order to hasten Anna’s slow transformation into ice: the inevitable end of any touched in the heart by ice magic.

With Olaf’s help, Anna escapes and races across the frozen bay to try and find Kristoff, the one she now feels must be her true love.

But Elsa, too, on realising what she has done to her sister, has returned to the kingdom, and Anna arrives just in time to see Hans confronting her sister with drawn sword in hand. Knowing now Hans’ true desire and knowing that only Elsa stands between him and the throne, the stage is set for the true Act of True Love.

Anna breaks off from her last desperate run toward Kristoff – her only hope of saving herself before she turns irretrievably to ice – and flings herself into the path of Hans’ sword. As she does, the curse takes effect and she hardens into a glittering statue. Hans’ sword, rather than striking down the queen or even Princess Anna, shatters on the ice. It’s over. Hans’ power is broken, but Anna is dead.

But it isn’t over. Anna has performed the one true Act of True Love that can save. She dies in her sister’s place; sacrifices herself for her sister. The transformation takes a few moments to begin, but after a minute the bluish ice begins to sweep with colour as Anna’s heart starts anew and she unfreezes.

And not only that, but her sacrifice effects a reconciliation between the sisters and puts an end to both of their prisons. The doors stay open, the evildoers are restrained, and the kingdom returns to days of happiness.

Does anyone not see Scriptural parallel here? Anna acts as a symbolic Christ-figure, achieving reconciliation and redemption through laying down her life for another. She even comes back from the dead. The enemy’s sword is broken by the power of her sacrifice, and a great deliverance is wrought from the power of a deceiver who has taken the throne through a lie.

The doors are open again – there’s free communion between the kingdom and the world outside. And what’s more, the doors will never again be shut.

Coda: Allegory and Symbolism

Now, I’m not saying that this was necessarily deliberate retelling of the Good Story under the mask of fairytale, though in some ways the parallels are closer than seems reasonable for chance. But I’m not necessarily saying it isn’t deliberate either. I don’t know. Disney don’t take me into their inner storymaking works and expose all their secrets.

But it’s not a straight allegory. Allegory works on a one-to-one equivalence, in which if Princess Anna represents Christ, then all that she does or says should be considered to be what Christ would do or say in those circumstances.

Symbolism is a bit more fluid. Frozen is its own story, not dependent for its primary meaning on anything except itself. But for those with eyes to see, it’s possible to discern the shape of the Gospel story lying beneath. Anna’s actions are sometimes those of a Redeemer, sometimes those of the one in need of redemption. Where the allegory has its underlying meaning in the mind of the writer, the symbolic story has its underlying meaning in the eye of the reader, or in this case, the watcher.

So it may not be anything more substantial than something I can see, but it’s fascinatingly suggestive of truth.

I’m reminded of a quotation from – I think – CS Lewis, that “all good stories are reflections of_the one Good Story”, or something like that.

It certainly seems to be true in this case.