Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.


Christmas Schmaltz


William Edgar

12-08-2014


By William Edgar
December 8, 2014

I love going to my local barber shop. Not the tedious haircut part, but the conversations. It’s really a social center, where both customers and barbers share the latest about our local sports teams (usually losing ones – we’re in Philadelphia!), whose children are not enjoying school, vacation plans to the Caribbean, where to get firewood, and much more. One of the barbers is from Italy and I try to practice my rusty Italian and talk about the old country with her. There is always background music from the local cable television, which sometimes elicits a lively debate about what to like and what to dislike in the latest pop songs and the singers. It is such a different world from the academic environment I inhabit, and I love it.

Just before Thanksgiving, I was in there and Christmas music was already playing. Well, it was the music played around Christmas time. The songs were the usual: “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” “Jingle Bells,” “The Little Drummer Boy,” and “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire.” One of the barbers exclaimed, “Oh, I love this season, and the music really gets me into the spirit.” Another said, “Me too, but this is a bit too early, don’t you think?”

I didn’t know what to say, so I wisely kept quiet. These were professionals with families and bills to pay, all of them delightful people with fascinating stories. Most of them, I have discovered, were either regular church-goers, or at least highly respectful of religion. My first thought was, “Don’t they realize that this is pure schmaltz, nothing to do with Christmas at all?” Incidentally, schmaltz is a charming Yiddish word that originally meant melted animal fat used to make matzo balls. But it has come to mean music that is overly sentimental or saccharine. A slightly more learned term for sentimental art is kitsch, a term originating in the Munich art markets in the nineteenth century to designate products that were cheap and superficial. Any airport souvenir shop will carry kitsch Eiffel Towers, Statues of Liberty, or replicas of the leaning tower of Pisa. Hummel Figures are the quintessence of kitschy art.

Walter Benjamin, reflecting on kitsch, described it as, “something that is warming…conducive to ‘heart ease’ … art with 100% absolute and instantaneous availability for consumption.” Kitsch can be the sentimental Christ at Heart’s Door by Warner Sallman, with his long flowing hair and exaggerated white shining robe. More grimly (or not?) it is the realist art used by Nazis and Stalinists to portray the hard-working, earnest Caucasian families of their respective utopias.

Christmas is the perfect time for schmaltz and kitsch. Think of the iconic Norman Rockwell painting, “Is He Coming?” on the cover of Life Magazine (December 16, 1920) where two cute children in front of the hearth are anxiously anticipating Santa’s visit. The music in my barber shop was getting my friends “into the spirit”— but of what? Gifts? Family? Turkey? Eggnog?

Before you think I am a Scrooge figure, or a historian intent on redressing our Christmas myths, or a true believer who wants to take Christ out of Christmas because the whole thing is too commercial for him to bless, hear me out. I have a different concern. My worry is that sentimental religion simply cannot equip us to deal with either the trials or even the true joys of life. For that matter, a culture of favorable feelings cannot prepare us for trials and joys at all.

Advertising reinforces this culture of favorable feelings by attempting to cultivate a bond between us and our various products.2 This can be quite subtle. To sell a Honda Civic a few years ago, the company spent millions and hired a choir to learn to “sing” all the different noises a driver hears: crunching gravel, the echo of a tunnel, the windshield wipers, and so on. The ad said nothing about the quality of the car or its gas mileage, but it was meant to make you feel good about the driving experience. Celebrity Cindy Crawford lends her name, and her face, to a skin product meant to make you look young. Meaningful Beauty® Advanced is an “ultimate youth-enhancing system.” Nothing is said about the age-old issue of aging.

In sharp contrast, the New Testament teaches us that Christian strength is acquired through suffering, which produces endurance, character, and then hope (Rom. 5:3). It’s not the suffering that we desire, but the strength and the hope. Notice that this strength not only prepares us to endure difficulties, but also to experience joy, the true delights of life in the midst of trouble. They are far removed from “the spirit” we’re meant to “get into” at Christmas. I am not advocating playing only Bach or Britten in the barber shop--pop music is perfect while being shorn. But we need to eliminate a schmaltzy false idea of the Christian message.

- William Edgar is Professor of Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.

Some of the following material is taken from Steve Turner’s marvelous book, Popcultured, (IVP, 2013), Chapter 10.



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