Discerning the (Holiday) Spirits: On Prophecy in the Negative Mode Only

In lieu of a new podcast this week, we're pleased to feature this piece submitted by Tokens Blog contributor Brad East. by Brad East

The Christmas season in the U.S. is a vexing time for Christians. Not because there's too little Christmas, but because there's too much. Too much shopping, too much purchasing power, too much scribbling down lists of stuff you'd like other people to buy you. Imagine watching Fox News continuously on a loop for four weeks straight, except there's a single topic ("BUY MORE STUFF"), the anchor is an old bearded white guy (you know who), and everything is colored red, white, and green—that's what the American experience of Christmas is like. (Come to think of it, that's just like the rest of the year, only no beard and blue instead of green.)

Accordingly, if you have friends like mine, since Thanksgiving week your Facebook feed has been littered on a daily basis with articles and blog posts decrying consumerism and related evils. (Perhaps you thought you were reading one of those now.) And that's as fitting as it is necessary: the spirit of Christmas in America is without question "shop till you drop." Families spend hundreds (often thousands) of dollars they do not have to buy gifts for family members and friends who are in turn spending hundreds (often thousands) of dollars they do not have to reciprocate. This is insane. And it manifestly bears no relationship to the advent of God the Son, born in a backwoods barn, with animals for bedmates and the smell of dung and slop to keep him company. We needn’t even mention Jesus’s relentless rhetorical attacks on the rich, for the manner of his longed-for coming—king in a cave, God in a feed trough—was and is itself a judgment on all those who have more than they need while their neighbors go without. This one, we may be sure, does not take pleasure in our cumulative attempts at amassing the most stuff.

And yet. As fitting and needed as such prophetic reminders are, I worry that American Christians vexed at the holidays quickly find themselves with nothing to do but to throw up their hands and critique from afar—in this case, via little surgical e-strikes launched indirectly at their online neighbors. But is this all followers of Jesus have to say about the American holiday season? Is being anti-consumerism the exhaustion of faithful witness? Is prophecy reducible to the negative mode only?

I want to make the gentle suggestion that prophetic, conscientious, even (whoever these may be)[1] radical Christians in the U.S. need not be Scrooges in order to be faithful disciples at Christmas. Further, I think that an overweening emphasis on the critical actually detracts from the larger message Christians want to communicate, which is not finally judgment but good news, the content of which is sheer grace, total gift: God's giving of Godself to us in Christ.

Let me make the negative point first. When our sight and speech—that is, what we notice and talk about—are ordered primarily or entirely by and to negative realities—what is not, what falls short, what fails—we start to become ignorant of the good, of what is in fact undeniably good right before our eyes. We begin losing the ability to see, and so cease spend our time talking about, the good and lovely things all around us.[2] But by what standard do we judge the bad in the first place? And do we mean to deny the reality of the good in focusing so much on its absence or corruption? If not, we have to take the time and develop the habits necessary to spot goodness in a world that does present us with so many occasions for lament and rebuke.[3]

Put differently, prophecy is not complete in the negative mode only.[4] Prophets have a word to say, have a vision to cast, and even as these sometimes consist in judgment, or at least entail it, they are not limited to it, for what they have to say is, ultimately, grace. What they see is a world beyond the ills of this world, but not another world, rather this world mended and remade by the only power able to do so completely: God's. Prophecy's judgment is contained within the good news of God's gracious will for us, yesterday, today, and forever.

The key is timeliness, fittingness, discernment. As 1 John 4 has it, we are to test the spirits to know which are of God. Instead of limiting ourselves to the annual diatribes against the evils of American consumerism, we should commit ourselves to the more demanding task of discerning the holiday spirits, testing which are of God and which are not. To the latter let us apply the full force of our prophetic indictment; but as for the former, why not give thanks? Why not shout for joy, celebrate with friends, throw a feast for the happy discovery of beauty and truth and love in this world?—this world that is, says the gospel of Advent and Christmas, abandoned neither by God nor by us.

One year ago I was walking in a mall with my wife and our newborn son, looking for gifts for our family. Apropos of nothing, I offered the devastatingly insightful comment, "Malls are the most depressing place on earth." This is inarguably a true statement. To no one's shock but my own, however, my wife did not appreciate the comment. Here we were, having trekked out on a snowy New England day, our new family of three, searching for gifts to give to those we love, amidst a bustling lot of smiling faces doing the same—and all I could see was a great swirl of –isms incomplete without my ironically detached censure. This wasn't a case of righteous prophetic judgment. It was much more boring than that, just your regular old immaturity mixed with some ingratitude and topped off with a bit of rudeness. Why leave Susie Derkins in a good mood if you can pass your dark cloud on to her?

The worst fate for a supposed prophet is persistent unsmiling grumpiness. That's where prophecy in the negative mode alone leads (and many of us know victims of that unfortunate metamorphosis). But if what Christians say is true—if the world is not all darkness, if all is not lost, is God is not dead but alive in Bethlehem—we're not doomed to the gloomy drudgery of perennially sentencing the world and its –isms to hell. To be clear, this doesn't mean the world's problems and its rampant injustices are any less pressing or any less demanding of our time and energy and, yes, speech. Nor does it mean that the holidays need to be "happy" rather than "sad." We have to be true to whatever the case may be and to that to which God is calling us. For example, I know folks in Nashville who are, as we speak, advocating for persons without homes or beds to have shelter in the bitter winter weather.[5] God bless their efforts and God judge our willful neglect; let's not pretend that December in America always means family and eggnog and sitting by the fire. What we call the holidays can be an especially painful time for many people in this country.

What I mean, then, is not that we should elide the bad in favor of the good. Rather, we should resist the temptation to have eyes for either bad or good to the exclusion of the other. The wisdom of discernment comes in knowing what to look for, and when, and how. God is not absent from even such places as shopping malls and Amazon carts. So, let us "test the spirits to see whether they are from God; for many false prophets have gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1). If many prophets are false, then some will be true. Not only should we be among them, but we might be surprised to discover which of our neighbors is also.

That is to say: God's Spirit is out and about, even at the holidays. When we catch wind of it, let's say so, and with unhesitant joy.

———

[1] Because ‘radical’ is the single most overused and therefore meaningless word now in theopolitical circulation.

[2] For an excellent and, as ever, balanced example of this, see Richard Beck’s recent post titled “Do Not Judge the Christmas Shopper.”

[3] For an eloquent articulation of a different but related point, see Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 2000), pp. 85-87:

I long for the Church to be more truly itself, and for me this involves changing its stance on war, sex, investment and many other difficult matters. I believe in all conscience that my questions and my disagreements are all of God. Yet I must also learn to live in and attend to the reality of the Church as it is, to do the prosaic things that can be and must be done now and to work at my relations now with the people who will not listen to me or those like me—because what God asks of me is not to live in the ideal future but to live with honesty and attentiveness in the present, i.e., to be at home.



What if the project in question is myself, and not some larger social question such as war? At the end of the day, it is the central concern for most of us. We long to change and to grow, and we are rightly suspicious of those who are pleased with the way they are and cannot seem to conceive of changing any further. Yet the torture of trying to push away and overcome what we currently are or have been, the bitter self-contempt of knowing what we lack, the postponement of joy and peace because we cannot love ourselves now—these are not the building blocks for effective change. We constantly try to start from somewhere other than where we are. Truthful living involves being at home with ourselves, not complacently but patiently, recognizing that what we are today, at this moment, is sufficiently loved and valued by God to be the material with which he will work, and that the longed-for transformation will not come by refusing the love and the value that is simply there in the present moment.



So we come back, by a longish detour, to the point to which Mark's narrative brought us: the contemplative enterprise of being where we are and refusing the lure of a fantasized future more compliant to our will, more satisfying in the image of ourselves that it permits. Living in the truth, in the sense in which John's Gospel gives it, involves the same sober attention to what is there—to the body, the chair, the floor, the voice we hear, the face we see—with all the unsatisfactoriness that this brings. Yet this is what it means to live in that kingdom where Jesus rules, the kingdom that has no frontiers to be defended. Our immersion in the present moment which is God's delivers the world to us—and that world is not the perfect and fully achieved thing we might imagine, but the divided and difficult world we actually inhabit. Only, by the grace of this living in the truth, we are able to say to it at least an echo of the 'yes' that God says, to accept as God accepts.

[4] Note well, if there be academics reading, that I am not making a historical claim. That is, I am not talking about what certain Israelites were up to in and around Israel/Judah before the exile.

[5] See this recent post by Lindsey Krinks, who works as a street chaplain in Nashville.

Brad East is a PhD student in theology at Yale University. His research interests include ecclesiology, theologies of Scripture and its interpretation, and the ethics of peace, war, and nonviolence. You can find his blog at http://resident-theology.blogspot.com.