Anyone with a television probably knows that Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly recently announced that the historical Santa Claus and Jesus are white. While the reaction to her initial “tongue-in-cheek” claim caught the attention of many, I was particularly popped in the face by her follow up. According to Megyn Kelly, the ethnicity of Jesus as not-white is an issue “not settled.” In the face of historic congnitive dissonance and the resulting neuroses, we can’t compute a Jesus that is at odds with Santa Claus, can we?
According to Fox News consultant and former VP candidate, Gov. Sarah Palin, they needn’t be at odds. Reviewing Palin’s newewst book Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, author Candida Moss explains that:
Palin doesn’t seek the original Christmas (a fourth-century invention), the traditional American Christmas (they didn’t celebrate it), or consumerism-free Christmas (you Communist!). The festival Palin wants to retrieve is the Christmas of her youth. Palin’s Christmas is a medley of joy-filled eating, present opening, charitable giving, and idiosyncratic family tradition.
And part of this “idiosyncratic family tradition” includes a cultural appropriation of placing a menorah on their family’s counter, “as a way to acknowledge Christianity’s Judeo-Christian roots.” Confused historicity aside, while Moss writes that “Palin says her book is “about Christ and our ability to worship Him freely.” … there’s not a lot of worship here.” I’d disagree. I think there is a lot of worship there, only, we’re interpreting it as something else.
Taking Megyn’s claims into conversation with its apparent backlash, two important points are brought to mind: 1) Ethnicity and culture matter, especially when dealing with heroic figures of spiritual significance, and 2) the dominant culture usually ignores historic realities that undermine dominant norms (and their resulting spiritual implications), replacing these problematic facts with a narrative that serves dominant interests.
Think for a moment: why do so many of our religious icons picture Jesus as European? Why does he have blonde hair? Why does he have Caucasian features? I’m not only speaking to the medieval milieu of religious iconography, but to many of our modern artistic expressions of Jesus found at Mardels or Lifeway. Even today, Jesus is often depicted in ways that reflect and reinforce the dominant norm in our country.
When the “normal” Santa we celebrate looks like our phenotype, his mythos also reflects our priorities. Let’s think deeply about the superficial narrative of Santa Claus, shall we? He’s a fat, white guy with white hair (read healthy, wealthy, Father-like, and European) living in a far off place who works tirelessly with joy (think Protestant work ethic) to reward good little girls and boys (read they get what they deserve) through the supernatural aid of some magical elves (think mysterious, celestial help agents), but if children have been naughty, Santa gives them coal (read they do it to themselves).
Now let’s talk about Jesus and the Christian mythos, which also reflects our priorities at Christmas time. Let’s think superficially about the deep narrative of Jesus Christ, shall we? He’s a fit-looking white guy with a beard, living in a far off place who works tirelessly with joy to reward faithful servants through the supernatural aid of the angels, while punishing the wicked.
Its easy to get the two confused, since both bestow gifts upon us according to our own behavior. And since these gifts moralize an economy that places priority upon potential purchase power, commercial might makes right. Moreover, we like a Jesus that fits our cultural expectations. He’s gotta be strong, but not too strong. He’s gotta be middle-class and not too poor. He has long hair and a beard–but he can’t look like a hippie. He needs to be Jewish, but not too Jewish…
But what should our mythos look like, if we actually worshiped the historical Jesus, not the Jesus of American Suburbia? Is it significant to our theology that Jesus was impoverished? Or that he was born a Galilean–meaning his Jewish identity also descended from Canaanite, Moabite,
Babylonian, and Assyrian stock–much unlike the Judean Jews in Jerusalem? Or even that Jesus was an adopted child? Or that his adopted father was a tekton–essentially a day-laborer, not the quaint carpenter of tradition? Or that Jesus was dark-skinned, working out in the sun, belonging to a ethnicity and race that might put him on one of our no-fly lists today? Or that his mother was dark skinned and poor and uneducated? Or that she was stigmatized for getting pregnant outside of marriage? Should it affect our theology that Jesus spoke Aramaic, the official language of the Neo-Babylonian Empire? Or that
he owned no property, not even a house?
What would it say about our mythos–our spiritual and political priorities–if our narrative about Jesus (the Jesus we worship on Sundays) reflected his historic reality? Now, that is a question worth asking.