, , , , , , ,

The “international” post-docs at Helsinki had the task of
organizing a Christmas quiz for the Faculty Christmas party this
December. We ended up putting together all kinds of questions
about Christmas traditions in the West, many of which were
American in origin. One thing that stuck in my head was how
thoroughly “American” Santa Claus is, despite its many and deep
northern European roots.

Thinking more about it today–while hearing Ella sing “Santa
Claus is Coming to Town”–it struck me how Santa Claus has become
the secular American embodiment of bad American Protestant
theology. In essence, he is a ridiculous embodiment of the sort
of theology that, in its extreme forms, becomes the so-called
“Health and Wealth gospel.” The “Health and Wealth gospel” is
the idea that if one is righteous one will be given lots of
wealth by God, and if wicked one will be poor: the corollary
then drawn is that one can measure one’s righteousness by one’s
wallet size. Though this idea has very old and biblical roots,
it is widely recognized to be simplistic, materialistic, and
wrong. Moreover, it tends to have terrible consequences in terms
of social justice and “spirituality.” It is, however, a theology
well disposed to fit into the American dream of economic self-
help and self-improvement and the American fascination with
excessive size and wealth.

Santa Claus seems to embody the sort of deity implied by this
kind of theology. He is a remote figure who nonetheless keeps a
close watchful eye on the activities of “his” children,
rewarding their behavior through the bestowing or withholding of
material goods. This is connected with the annual ritual of
taking children to sit on his lap and list they things they want
in return for being good. A direct link between behavior and
material blessing is rather explicit. Even a supernatural
element is retained in the ridiculous mythology of flying

Yet in real, substantive Christian theology, neither moral-
ethical behavior nor its consequences are directly related to
rewards or punishment. We are enjoined to be good for goodness’s
sake: because it is good. Because God loved us, we also love, and
the outcome of love is goodness. We do the right things because
they are the right things to do, because we love people and love
God. There are beneficial consequences to such behavior indeed,
but they are not the primary reason or purpose, nor are they
primarily material in nature.

In turn, the concepts of reward and punishment are not a
mechanistic cause-and-effect, of a school master punishing
recaltrant schoolchildren. While indeed they can be useful
pedagogical tools, the real nature of divine blessing and
punishment is much deeper: it is in the nature of the way the
universe is constructed. Goodness and love change the person
doing and the persons receiving, just as evil and selfishness do. There are
consequences from action and character, and these are perceived
as blessing and punishment in simplistic morality tales.

We all know bad things happen to good people and vice versa; the
strict link of blessing and goodness has been challenged since
at least Job. But the gospel teaches us that God is with us,
suffering alongside us, regardless of whence the suffering
comes. And it also teaches us to continue to love and to do good
despite and in midst of suffering, and to learn to see the
presence of God in those actions. He is not an accountant making
a list of good and bad actions and deciding the appropriate
amounts of coal and candy to dispense in return. He is the Muslim
nurse working on Christmas day so that their Christian
colleagues could be home; He is the person who hugs the
transgender person in front of people hurling insults; he is the
person visiting inmates throughout the year.

The sentimentality and ridiculousness of secular American Santa
traditions has disguised the twisted way bad American Protestant
theology has contributed to its formation and materialism. Maybe
it is time to be less afraid of theology.

Helsinki, First Sunday of Christmas, 2014