Santa Claus has a lot to answer for!
Now, I’m talking about the pudgy fellow with the flowing white beard and the red and white suit. I would not be surprised if this jolly old chap were responsible for more people losing their Christian faith over the years than anyone else in history.
It’s not really his fault, poor old fellow. It’s what people do with him. See, grownups will insist on pretending that this preposterous anachronism is real to their little children. The children gobble him up (sometimes literally, if he’s made of chocolate). They eagerly await his advent, full of delicious anticipation at the bounty he will bring them. They live their days in righteousness in fear of his wrath, lest he smite them with an onion in their stocking in the last days. They may even offer to him a sacrifice of milk and cookies. And then on the fateful day of his coming, they rise early to find the bounty he has graced upon them, and which has miraculously appeared over night beneath his twiggy altar. Grownups glow with fuzzy warmth at the sight and continue to feed the lie to their children.
Until one day … it all comes crashing down.
No Virginia, there is no Santa Claus.
There are even whole websites devoted to how best to break this terrible news to a child (just Google it and see). What worries me is the betrayal of trust this entails. The child has believed the grownups when they told her this wonderful story. In her little world, it is hard enough to separate the real from the imaginary; that’s why kids hate the dark and fear monsters in their wardrobes. And now, the people she trusted, the people on which she depended for stability and security turn out to have been lying all along. That lovely, warm, safe old man dissolves away in whoosh of icy pain.
How can she trust grownups in anything they say? How can she ever take them at their word again? Who knows what else they may have been lying about all these years. Sure, they do it from love, but a lie is a lie all the same. A huge, noisy, restless, frightening new world opens before the little child. And now, more than ever, she feels alone, for the guides she trusted implicitly have played her false.
My reading of the stories of atheists turns up some such scenario with surprising regularity. By the way, for the romantics among you, my suggestion is to tell children the truth from the very beginning, including the story of the real Santa, St Nicolas of Mora, whom I feel to be far more inspiring for a child than the red-coated cartoon character.
And yet, this whole Santa Crisis closely parallels a process that seems to be essential in the life of any sincere and thoughtful Christian. The very nature of a child’s mind means that they must necessarily adopt a very simplified faith in their childhood. They simply cannot cope with profound theology or tangled ethics at the age of five. Thus do we feed them on simple concepts (God loves you), simple guidelines for life (be good and you will be rewarded, be bad and you will be punished), and equally simple concepts of our faith and practices.
But of course, as in most things, the truth is far, far more complicated. For example, I have been dipping my toe lately into the murky pool of Biblical history and criticism. Among the shocking things I have learned are that the Bible, as we know it, was not really put together until the fourth century, and that until the advent of the printing press, a complete Bible, Old and New Testaments together, was a rarity. Even then, having a Bible at home was almost unheard of (unless you were quite rich) and to have your own personal Bible? Forget it! Not until the twentieth century! But perhaps it didn’t matter that much since until the industrial revolution, chances are you never learnt to read anyway.
In the year 100AD, the writings we now know as the New Testament were still a scattered set of individual letters and scrolls. Certainly, they were highly valued by those early Christian communities, and thus were they kept safe and read out to the mostly illiterate congregation every Sunday. Then they would pore over them, and discuss them and reflect upon them before carefully replacing them in the barrel of fragile papyrus scrolls once again. In some places, they even copied them, laboriously by hand, and sent them out so that other communities could share their message. No one had a Bible at home.
In fact, the grouping of the 66 books of the Bible we are so familiar with did not really happen until probably the fourth century. And it makes sense when you think about it. Firstly, the young Christian community had to decide which books are truly inspired by God and which are not. And there was no shortage of imitations of the real thing. Gospels like those of Thomas and Barnabas and Judas, Infancy accounts of our Lord, letters purporting to have been written by various apostles or their disciples, scary apocalyptic tales, and books of wisdom like the Shepherd of Hermas, which some early Christian communities seem to have valued as much as the Gospels and the canonical letters. Consensus takes time, and the first complete canon of the New Testament we know of is in a Paschal letter of St Athanasius of Alexandria in the year 367AD. That’s more than three hundred years down the story of Christianity.
And then there was the problem of how to make a Bible. In the era of scrolls, up to the early fourth century AD, it was quite a task. Just think of how long a scroll you would need! How fat that scroll would be, how fragile and easy to damage. And if you made a mistake on it while you were copying it out by hand, there wasn’t any liquid paper or backspace key to help you out. Given the reverence these scrolls commanded, a blemished one was unacceptable, so bad luck if the mistake you made was in the last chapter of Revelation. Toss it out and start again! Aaaaaarrrrrggggghhhhhh…..
When the parchment revolution came about, in the early fourth century AD, it brought its own set of problems. Binding the leaves into codices or what we consider today, a book, was a brilliant stroke of genius. Now a copying mistake only meant you had to throw out the page, not the whole book. But the leaves were thick and difficult to sew together or to fold. And parchment comes from animal skins. One estimate is that when the Emperor Constantine ordered 50 complete Bibles for the great cathedral in Constantinople, it required the skins of roughly 15,000 sheep and goats! So it was far more convenient to keep the books of the Bible in smaller volumes; perhaps the Gospels together in a volume, the letters of St Paul in a volume, and so on. I had always wondered why it was that St Augustine in the fifth century was inspired by picking up and reading a book containing only the letters of St Paul, and not a whole Bible. Now it all makes sense!
Mass priduction of Bibles only really became practical with the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century. The Gutenberg Bible was the beginning of the revolution that made the Bible accessible to the common man in the comfort of his own home. And yet, we had to wait until literacy rates improved before even this could really be true for most people. And that didn’t really happen until but a few generations ago. So the reality is that for most of the history of Christianity, most Christians only had access to the Bible through hearing it being read out at Church, or perhaps through parents and instructors at Church helping people to memorise important passages.
Now this news is shocking for those who have grown up with a subconscious image of Jesus Himself giving out signed NKJV study Bibles to His Twelve Disciples as a graduation present just before He sent them out to preach, with the stern command to read a chapter every day. For some, to imagine a Church with no settled Bible that was universally accepted, or even just a valid Christian life with no Bible at home, is to threaten to break down the comfortable, safe, system we have built around our faith in recent generations. But the fact remains that regardless of how we might want things to be, this is how things actually are. Growing up involves learning to cope with reality.
Not that reality means we have to lose the heart of our faith. OK, so the Bible wasn’t just handed down from Heaven as the Quran or the Book of Mormon are alleged to have been. Does that really change anything? Does it really surprise us, when we already saw the stamp of the human individuality of its authors in its pages? Is God unable to give us His message through the fallible vessels of the authors and copyists who are responsible for the nice neat Bible we have today? And is the fact that it wasn’t always so neat in any way a hindrance to me, today, reading it and using it to guide my life? I do not see that the knowledge of the Bible’s history in any way takes away either its authority or its effectiveness. If anything, a more thorough understanding of the background and development of the Bible gives me a better understanding of its message, just as learning to read the New Testament in the original Koine Greek reveals layers of meaning that got filtered out in translation.
This age of instant access to knowledge ought to be a boon for anyone who truly desires to find the Truth. Sure, you have to be a bit wary of your sources, for there is indeed a lot of rubbish floating around out there in the internet ether, and even in the printed word, but the fact remains that we have unprecedented access to knowledge that just a few generations ago would have been forever beyond our grasp. This should not threaten us! If God is who we think He is, then more Truth can only lead to Him, not away from Him.
Personally, I find this opening of the mind to be exciting, although that’s probably just the reckless streak in me. I do not criticise those who prefer the security of their childhood world. God is clever enough to make sure that they find Him there just as easily (sometimes more easily) than on the dark and dangerous road of harsh reality. In many ways, I wish I could have that simplicity in my own inner world, but God just didn’t make me that way, so I have to say with St Paul: “I am who I am”.
Interestingly, I have found out that I’m not alone. Which is why I write this particularly subversive blog. I have found that there are many other Copts who are thinking and pondering, who are asking tough questions, and who cannot resist the allure of Truth, however uncomfortable it may be. When I was young, the standard Sunday School answer to probing questions was often along the lines of “It is wrong to even ask such a question. Go away and repent.” But of course, Jesus never said that to anyone, nor did His Disciples. For a Church that values ancient apostolic Christianity so highly, it surprises me sometimes how far our present culture can be from the spirit of the first Christians.
There may not be a Santa Claus, Virginia, but there is a God. And He is a God of Truth.