December 24, 2023

The Christmas Syndrome: When Everyday Is Christmas No Day Will Be

Christmas or Super, it’s all the same to Syndrome.

When Every Day is Christmas

The best Pixar movie is The Incredibles (I’m not taking an online poll).

And the best line from The Incredibles is:

When everyone is super, no one will be.

When the evil Syndrome utters that line, in light of his attempt to demythologise “the Supers” – whom he despises – and bring the fire of the Supers to mere mortals, it’s telling that his motive is not to raise everyone up, but to bring everyone down. Down to the banal. Down to the unimaginative. Down to the workaday. Down to the drudgery.

Somehow that’s what has happened to Christmas. Quite apart from the hard secular insistence that we no longer use religious language to describe the season (lest we offend other religious people who feel less offended than ever, I might add, by Christian religion and more offended than ever by secularists), it’s coming to the point where it feels it might no longer matter.

For here’s a fact: Our post-religious age wants to make everyday Christmas. Not to elevate all days to that deep, meaningful, purpose-filled day celebrating the greatest gift of all – the Incarnation – but to bring that day down to every other day. When every day is like Christmas then Christmas will be like every day.

So in an age of Amazon boxes at your day, there’s never a sense of anticipation waiting to open a package.

In an age of Netflix and Disney Plus, there’s never a sense of anticipation of going to the movies.

In an age of hook ups and Tinder, there’s never a sense of anticipation in waiting for covenant fulfilment.

In an age of immersive technology, there’s never a sense of having to discover anything over an extended period of time.

In an age of … well you get the point.

A Feast Without a Fast

Recent convert to Christianity, Paul Kingsnorth, observes in his excellent article, Our Godless era is dead, that “a feast without a fast is a strange, half-finished thing“. He’s converted to Orthodoxy, so the past forty days (Forty? Geddit?) have been tummy rumblers. But not for the sake of it. This is no return to the Stoicism that I’m seeing among some young people (one of the barber’s at my local barbershop being one such person). No, this is a fast that makes sense of, and is completed by, the ensuing feast.

Kingsnorth set me on the path for this post, I’m not gonna lie. So over to him to say it how he says it so well:

What happens, then, if you feast without fasting? What happens if your culture encourages you to feast every day, because your economy is predicated on endless, consumer-driven growth? Probably the same thing that happens if you decide that all borders, boundaries and limits, be they economic, social, sexual or cultural, must be torn down in the name of “freedom”. It’s like taking a child to a sweet shop and allowing him to eat anything he wants. For a while it’s fantastic, and then it isn’t. More, it turns out, is not actually better. More just makes you sick.

Yes indeed. Yet both Kingsnorth, and the New York Times’ Ross Douthat, are pointing out that the end of religion, and the levelling out of everything to a meaningful, progressively-minded and liberating secularism, is stubbornly not occurring. The New Atheists are about as relevant as the old gods they decried. We have withered. Kingsnorth, in particular, says that the new gods – in which – Syndrome-like – we are all a part of the pantheon in this supposedly godless age, are not delivering:

In response, we are now beginning to see a resurgence in genuine religion. For the first time in a long while, people are beginning to take faith seriously again. Actual religion — the thing that was supposed to die a slow death at the hands of reason — is emerging slowly from the shadows as the new paganism takes hold.

Yet Kingsnorth sees the dangers of a new religious age not being all beer and skittles. And Douthat too, though seeing the spiritual resurgence, is a little more guarded about the future:

Can a liberal-individualist society avoid falling prey to despair, sterility, even extinction? Can a conservative alternative be something more than a truculent remnant, an anachronistic fringe? Does the future belong to the secular progressivism of an aging West, the supernaturalist Christianity of a youthful Africa, or to the collision of both with some sort of emergent post-Christian spirituality, the rise of techno-religion or the return of pagan magic?

The Future of the West is Religious

I have thought long and hard about these questions as I read the likes of Tara Isabella Burton and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and as I pore over the works of the excellent Christian apologist and interview Justin Brierley, in light of his book, The Surprising Rebirth of Belief in God.

Of course it makes good sense – good creation sense – that humans who junk the idea of transcendence attempt to make other things – and eventually everything – transcendent, thereby rendering nothing transcendent (hello Syndrome).

Yet here we are in the most angst-ridden era of all, when it is Christmas every day and we still feel that it is not enough. Still feel that something is missing. We have been blessed with the ultimate curse, – “anhedonia” – a numbness towards pleasure. Or perhaps it’s worse than a neutral “meh”. Perhaps it’s a syndrome much deeper than that, as GK Chesterton famously observed:

Pessimism is not in being tired of evil but in being tired of good. Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy. It is when for some reason or other the good things in a society no longer work that the society
begins to decline; when its food does not feed, when its cures do not cure, when its blessings refuse to bless.

The good things in a society no longer work, partly because we are stubbornly calling bad things good things. But also because we are overstuffed with the good things. We pull the lever of joy and it breaks off in our hands, swamping and suffocating us with the things that, in their time, place and measure, are meant to delight.

Our culture, as is its increasingly tiring wont, tries the therapeutic route to solve the issue. So we have these words in an article about “anhedonia” in Medical News Today:

Anhedonia, or the inability to feel pleasure during pleasurable activities, occurs as a part of a number of conditions. It is also considered a central feature of depression. In this Spotlight feature, we explore what’s happening in the brain.

May I humbly suggest that the spotlight has been turned onto the wrong organ? It’s the heart that’s at stake here: the centre of our will and desires. Our modern secular West is living in a fug of psychotropic drugs and therapeutic strategies. This is not to say that therapy is not a good thing. But if all of the time our post-religious therapeutic age circles the spiritual runway without ever landing the plane, then it’s no surprise that we’re seeing so many crash-landings.

That will mean a return to orthodox Christianity, of that much I am certain. But along with Kingsnorth and Douthat, I share the concern that this will be mixed with a whole bunch of wacky stuff too.

Futureproofing Christmas

The future of Christianity in the West is brighter than we fear, more compelling than we dare dream, and more complex than we might imagine

My new book comes out at the end of January. You can get it on the accursed Amazon if you like, but I’d prefer you go through The Good Book Company. In it I posit the problem of the loss of transcendence in our Western culture, or at least the loss of an orthodox God-filled transcendence. Because here’s the issue: something always has to be transcendent. Take out God and something will fill the space. God is the safety net above us, to seal off transcendence from our non-transcendent and fallen projects.

In the end, of course, this means that all of our projects, whether individual or corporate, become transcendent. Become religious in tone and drive. They laud their saints and condemn their sinners. They banish their heretics and reward their prophets. Whether it’s politics, education, cultural life, sporting codes or gender, ethnicity, whatever. Everything has become religious and transcendent. Yet the result ends up looking like a mud-wrestling match between two has-been prize fighters. Everything shouts out transcendence and nothing looks transcendent. Rather it looks tawdry, angry, finicky and lame.

Yet the feast is tomorrow. Only one day is Christmas. Only one days tells of the transcendent God who came down, in love and mercy and humility. One one Man is the Man from above who came to the earth and then returned above from where he rules, and reigns and will return.

And if everyday up until this point has been Amazon or Netflix transcendence after transcendence, and you’re feeling full, and sick like that child in the sweet/lolly shop, then you can make yourself hungry again, even today. Yes even today. For as our Lord says in the Scriptures, and as Paul Kingsnorth discovered:

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled. (Matthew 5:6)

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There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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