Cards, Carols & Claus: Christmas in Popular Culture and Progressive Christianity
Rex A.E. Hunt. Morning Star Publishing, 2013. 260 pages. RRP $34.95
Reviewed by Rev Dr John Bodycomb
Could be called ‘all you wanted to know about Christmas, but didn’t know whom to ask’! This impressive compendium of general knowledge about Christmas is one of a kind.
The first two of three main sections could be considered as ‘social history’, giving an account of the festival’s development and the form it takes in Australia. The second section is a richly informative, if somewhat exhaustive, treatment of cards and carols, with particular attention to the ‘Carols by Candlelight’ phenomenon in three state capitals, and then a profile of the cosmopolitan roly-poly with his mix of names.
Section III introduces so-called ‘progressive’ thought, beginning with a consideration of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke as midrash (a type of rabbinic commentary) or parable, and drawing heavily on luminaries we associate with the Westar Institute/Jesus Seminar. Paradoxically, the author does not canvass a possibility advanced by at least one Australian scholar. This is that, given the earliest extant full versions of Matthew and Luke are dated 4th century (after Nicea), could writers of birth narratives have had clear doctrinal intent?
This section leaves the reader with a fairly clear choice, as between traditional and uncritical ‘literalism’, and the hard-nosed treatment of progressive scholarship. With the exception of a quote from Jack Spong (p.201), there is little room for re-enchantment of the disenchanted – but I speak too soon! This situation is rescued in Appendix 4 (see below), where Hunt’s forte as liturgist shines through.
Cards, Carols and Claus bears the hall-marks of a dissertation, with a formidable bibliography, plus innumerable quotations from and references to his sources interrupting the author’s own text, especially in Part I. This takes away from what could be a more enjoyable experience...
The author does mention in his introduction that in ploughing through a lifetime’s collection of material on the topic he found an incomplete thesis! (p.9) As one who has read sundry dissertations and been heartily bored by some, I could never say that about ‘C,C&C’, and therefore wonder why the exercise was sidelined. Perhaps it may yet be submitted. The work is there – certainly in this form allowing more of us better access to the author’s inquiry than would a bound volume in some university library!
Its central argument would seem to be that Christmas is deeply embedded in Western (and Australian) culture, and that pious plots to assassinate Santa (which he cites) are better replaced with genuine attempts by religionists to embrace the cultural tradition in imaginative new ways. Appendix 4, a Liturgy for the Celebration of Life (for Christmas Eve) neatly illustrates this agenda, and rescues part III from the accusation that progressive Christianity is apt to be overly ‘cerebral’.
Rex Hunt is undeniably one of our best when it comes to inventing liturgy that takes full account of both modern scholarship and the aesthetic, affective, non-rational in all of us. This is what he honours, of course, in declaring that it is time to stop the righteous denigration of C,C&C and start constructing some new bridgeworks with a folk religion that looks set to stay.