A billboard outside the Lincoln Tunnel in NYC carries this message. But all of us unreasonable Christians have nothing to worry about
Just today, Fox Nation broke the first of what will certainly be a nice long string of “Save Christmas!” stories. Apparently American Atheists have placed the above message on a billboard, right out there in front of God and everybody.
What AA may not really understand is that in seminaries all across the country (the one I attend included) students are shown all the difficulties involved in accepting a literal interpretation of the traditional nativity story as reported in Matthew and Luke.
That is, we future ministers are told that the traditional nativity story is a myth, although there are probably some kernels of historical fact within it. And most of us — including myself — knew this before we arrived at preacher school.
Well, OK then.
When my class covered the nativity, and how it’s not actually literally true, we heard it from a rather conservative Catholic scholar. And after hearing this, what did we do? Did we decide to leave seminary? Did we give up our calls to ministry? Did we throw out the Bible? Did we edge closer to becoming atheists? Of course not.
One of the things we learn in seminary is how to look beyond the surface of stories, to see what they’re really about. To the typical principled atheist, however, it seems that if the most simplistic and most literal interpretation of a story isn’t historically, factually true, then the whole thing is baloney. (Apparently for AA, the words myth and baloney are interchangeable. This is unfortunate.) To put it another way, AA must think that, in the words of Terry Eagleton, “‘Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness’ is a mighty funny way to describe a Grecian urn.”
Here are five things AA seem unable to understand: (1) Jesus actually lived once, (2) he had a birthday, (3) just because he (probably) wasn’t born on 25 December doesn’t mean Christians can’t celebrate his birth on 25 December, even if we did shanghai the Winter Solstice celebration from the Pagans, (4) myth is about something really real, and (5) the Christian faith is not reducible to a collection of facts.
AA claim that the billboard is designed to help “out” closet atheists. I am all for that. If you don’t believe in God, it’s really best to get that out on the table. A lot of honest atheists are not going to kill Christianity.
But AA also insist that the sign is not directed at Christians. They say it is not meant to “convert Christians to atheism,” which to me seems disingenuous. It is undeniable that the clip-and-save, take-home message, as understood by many more literal-minded Christians than myself and my fellow seminarians, and that is most of them, is that one of the central points of their spiritual belief and practice is a lie.
It’s a free country, so ultimately I have no problem with the billboard. I am pro-free-speech, and this is a clear case of our hard-won freedoms being used well. But AA know what they’re doing, and they’re trying to dissuade people from their lives of faith. Let’s just call it what it is.
Finally, about the “This season, celebrate reason” bit, that’s a fine joke, isn’t it? Celebrate ourselves? Really? Are they serious? Time and time again I have been struck by the insistent optimism of many atheists. Most of them seem so unflappably optimistic, in fact, that it’s almost unreasonable.
Buddha and Jesus wait for the train during rush hour in suburban Tokyo. The two spiritual masters leave Paradise to spend some time in the 21st century in Nakamura Hikaru‘s manga Seinto oniisan, which, roughly translated, is Saint Young Men. In Japanese the title carries overtones of brotherliness. You can download a number of episodes for free here, but you will need RAR software that can be found here for Mac users and here for PC users (it’s very easy). You will also need to remember that you must read left to right! Image source: citymanga.com
I have meditated elsewhere about what it would be like if Jesus and Buddha were to meet one another. I speculated at the time that they would probably get along swimmingly. And I still think they would. But Japanese artist Nakamura Hikaru has taken such musings and created something wonderful with them: Saint Young Men, a manga that places the two spiritual masters in a shared apartment in Japan.
[Jesus and Buddha] take a vacation from otherworldly life to shack up together in the Tokyo suburb, Nachikawa. They share a spartan, tatami-clad flat, wonder over new technology, do their own laundry (mostly jeans and t-shirts with various Buddhist and Christian references), visit amusement parks, get their food from the local 7-11, and celebrate Christmas and Shinto festivals. The local school girls are attracted to Jesus because he looks so much like Johnny Depp, which makes him happy since people in the 21st century might actually like him; he comes off as a bit of a hippy slacker and wears his crown of thorns around like a bandana. The Buddha enjoys napping, usually sleeping in the pose of the great reclining Buddha, or downing a can of Sapporo beer in response to too much asceticism, while the young girls think he looks like Buddha and the Western tourists think he looks like a ninja.
There are lots of references to the lives of Buddha and Jesus throughout the work, and much of the humor hinges on their encounters with 21st-century life: Hollywood, commuter trains, raffles, etc. Many in Japan, a largely atheist country, may have had their first encounter with Jesus through Saint Young Men.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing?
To me, it’s a good thing. I think Saint Young Men is great stuff, putting these two personalities together in the modern world. There are so many possibilities. I suspect that some in high places may consider it to be sacrilegious, but I’m not so sure about that. Somehow I think that this kind of representation of Jesus is quite safe, because who is going to mistake the hip and modern T-shirt-wearing Jesus of an obviously and thoroughly fictional manga with the real Jesus? IMO, Hikaru’s Jesus is a whole lot less damaging than Aryan Jesus, who, with the upward look in his eyes and the glow about his head and the robes and the “realistic” portraiture, may actually be confused with the real thing, and has been, at least for decades, at least in America. The Jesus of Hikaru is much less likely to be made into an idol than Aryan Jesus.
There are other possible objections. Some may think that the danger is in the trivialization of Jesus, as opposed to the danger of idolatry. This to me seems like a better argument, but I think the light-heartedness of the manga and its lack of sarcasm and mockery (such as found in South Park, say) prevents such a devaluation. Jesus is just a dude, not too different than other dudes (except maybe for his headwear). To me this is refreshing, Also, he and Buddha get along, as I might say, swimmingly. Still others may object to this very fact: Jesus and Buddha are presented as equals. But I have nothing to say about that.
The manga probably won’t make it over to the U.S., because I suspect the humor may not translate well. But I for one am glad to know that Jesus and Buddha are over there in East Asia, living it up together in the modern world.