Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Ho ho ho

‘Tis the season to be amused.

I am amused by the War on Christmas, which seems to have replaced the War on Terror as the main focus of Fox News. I am amused not because I think it is amusing that people should be making a war on Christmas or that people believe that other people are making a war on Christmas. I am amused because some commentators are talking about it as if this doesn’t go on every Christmas season and probably has ever since about A.D. 0. Every year lots of people complain that Christmas has lost its spiritual meaning and has been neutralized as a religious holiday by generic, all-encompassing phrases such as “happy holidays” and “seasons greetings” and “felicitous government day off.”

It might interest Americans to know that this same sort of controversy actually goes on in Europe as well. Even in the Republic of Ireland, where 104 percent of the population is Catholic. With every man, woman and child belonging to the Catholic Church, who is left to be offended by references to Christ? Actually, I am exaggerating. Only about 94 percent of residents of the Irish republic are actually Catholic. And even that number is misleading, since 90 percent of those people go to mass only for funerals and weddings and maybe the odd christening. Still, the overwhelming majority of people here are at least nominally Catholic and therefore Christian. (And even that assertion is not as straightforward as it seems. I have had at least one good Irish Catholic ask me if “Christians” were some sort of weird Protestant sect.) Yet, despite the fact that Ireland is largely homogenous (a fancy weird meaning that most people are the same), there are voices raised in public debates suggesting that too much emphasis is placed on the Christian aspects on Christmas and that this may be insensitive to non-Christians living in the republic. (Once a source of emigration to other countries, Ireland in recent years has become a destination for immigrants from other countries.) At the same time, there are voices (mostly among the Catholic clergy) proclaiming that the Irish have strayed too far from the holiday’s spiritual origins. What is surprising is that I have heard similar admonishments in regards to Ireland’s national holiday, St. Patrick’s Day. Who knew that Paddy’s Day was ever meant to be something other than an occasion for getting rip-roaring drunk on green beer? Well, it turns out that not only do the real Irish do not even drink green beer, but the day is at root a religious one. The things you learn living in other countries.

Anyway, the best line I have heard about America’s War on Christmas so far was the one from the Daily Show “correspondent” who affected indignation and outrage over the fact that things had gotten so bad that he could find no mention of Jesus in The Old Testament.

As with most cultural phenomena, the War on Christmas has a movie component. One of the two or three biggest movies of the holiday, I mean Christmas, season is The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. To the casual observer, this movie would appear to be one more entry in the special-effects-laden epic fantasy genre that reached its zenith with Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. But, as anyone who has read an article or review of the film already knows, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales come with a bit of baggage. I first became aware of them in high school. My all-time favorite work of literature was, of course, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings trilogy, a fact that I was not shy about sharing with friends and acquaintances. Interestingly, the friends who were most likely to take my advice and read The Lord of the Rings and become fans were the born-again ones. And a number of them came back to me with a recommendation of their own: Lewis’s Narnia books. That these friends would be fans of both works should not be surprising. Tolkien and Lewis were chums at Oxford, where they were both professors. And both works show apparent influence of their mid-20th-century origins as well as the religious sensibilities of the authors. The main differences between the two were 1) Lewis was more obvious in his Christian symbolism in his writing, although he claimed that this was not intentional, and 2) Tolkien never had a powerful and moving play written about his private, emotional and intellectual life. (Anthony Hopkins played Lewis in the movie adaptation of Shadowlands.)

Anyway, the first Narnia movie has made it to the big screen. (There was an earlier British television version.) And, as if to vindicate the paranoia of some American Christians, articles have appeared in The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine in the U.S. and in The Guardian in Britain, among others, criticizing the religious component of the film itself and/or of its marketing strategy. This is further evidence of the discomfort, which I noted a fortnight ago, that many in the U.S. and Europe feel toward America’s evangelical Christians. People are certainly free to like or dislike whatever movies they want for whatever reasons. But my position has always been that a movie should be judged on its own, irrespective of what is known about its origins or even its source material. And, if elements of Christian allegory or symbolism are causes for disdain, well, then an awful lot of movies and other works of literature are in deep trouble. Whether one likes it or not, the Christ story is deeply embedded in our (Western) culture and forms a part of our collective psyche, regardless of what church we go to or whether we go to church at all. And that goes for people involved in so-called liberal or leftist causes. For example, author/screenwriter (Jurassic Park) and sometimes film director Michael Crichton has written at length about how there are striking parallels between the environmentalist view of the world and the Christian one, both featuring a narrative that includes paradise lost, a world spoiled by mankind’s sins and an approaching doomsday.

Now I haven’t actually seen The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe yet, a fact that doesn’t stop me from discussing it, but I do plan to. And when I do, I will give you my verdict.

Of course, the main flashpoint these days in the tension between fundamentalists and everyone else is the attempts to introduce “intelligent design” in classrooms. Even many of the fundamentalists’ usual allies among political conservatives (like Charles Krauthammer and George Will) have abandoned them on this one. While introducing doubt and skepticism in teaching science is generally a good thing, you have to draw the line somewhere if science is going to actually mean anything.

But you know what really amuses me about the whole creationism-versus-evolution debate? It’s this. While liberals and moderates are much better at understanding Darwinism, fundamentalists are much better at practicing it. Indeed, the most fundamentalist and traditional teachings of all major religions form a veritable primer on the protecting and flourishing of a tribe’s DNA. Any action or activity that will cause DNA to be wasted is outlawed. All sexual practices that do not lead directly to procreation (e.g. birth control, homosexuality) are banned. Abortions are banned. Even the social conservative tendency to favor a strong military is clearly a vestige of the requirement to prevent one’s tribe (and its DNA) from being wiped out by other tribes. With emphasis on heterosexual marriage and families, is it any wonder that the populations of red states are growing faster than those of blue states? And the consequence is, of course, that the White House and both houses of Congress are controlled by Republicans.

Blue-staters may have a better grasp on the teaching of evolution. But red-staters are having the last laugh by practicing it.

And with that thought, let me wish all of you very happy holidays and/or, if you are so inclined, a very merry Christmas!

-S.L., 22 December 2005

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