“Have you read a good Buddhist novel lately?” That question was put to a friend of mine years ago by a Princeton University PhD candidate. Her thesis focused on early Japanese literature (including Buddhist stories) and frankly it was pretty boring stuff. Buddhism lacks one element that makes any story compelling. Ironically, that same element is often missing from the modern retelling of Christmas – which makes the all-too-familiar tale all-too-forgettable after December 25th. What’s missing?
The answer is found in adding one more piece to our nativity sets. It can also be discovered at the tail end of the Bible, in the Book of Revelation.
The story in Revelation begins with a dragon fomenting a ferocious struggle in the ancient heavens.1 Long before the creation of planet earth a conflict raged across the cosmos between troops loyal to the Great King and those following Lucifer. This makes The Lord of the Rings look like child’s play. The vanquished (a roiling force totaling one-third of the angelic realm and including the deceiver known as Lucifer) were thrown down to earth.2 The story then fast forwards to “O little town of Bethlehem” – except that everything’s not lying still. Above the deceptively sweet “deep and dreamless sleep” the silent stars do not go by. We find a woman, Mary, about to give birth. The fallen Lucifer, whom we often call the devil or Satan, is crouching greedily before her. His blood stained hands are ready to crush the infant Jesus the moment he is born. Somehow… someway… at the moment of birth the infant is snatched away to safety… but not a moment too soon. A headlong flight into Egypt ensues with demonic rasp-like pursuers on the tail of Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus.3 Foiled, the devil declares total war on the universe. The last glimpse of him – but not the last we’ll ever see of the devil – finds Satan scanning the horizon looking to devour followers of the Christ child. It’s a book worth reading… and yet to be finished.Satan was once a cast member in the Christmas story. Prior to the 19th century, the Christmas chronicle was similar to other ancient epics – lots of bad guys and often raucous or vulgar behavior.
That’s because the gospel was understood as a four-chapter story characterized by four types of conversations: (1) how things ought to be, (2) what life is like in the real world, (3) what we can do to make things better, and (4) what life will be like some day. The second chapter – the way life is – reminds us that evil still slinks around and we should never completely cover our eyes. “The world is all the richer for having a devil in it,” wrote William James, “so long as we keep our foot upon his neck.”4 There are bad guys, and we need to remember they are not asleep at the wheel.
We, on the other hand, tend to be asleep at the wheel and celebrate a candy-land view of Christmas. We erased Satan from the story when 19th century Victorian England sanitized all fables that were within earshot of children. The Victorians, many of them people of faith, romanticized the idea of “childhood” as something quite separate and distinct from adult life, meaning they “cleaned up” the ancient stories for kids by removing or emasculating villains. Sleeping Beauty is one example. Originally, the princess is wakened not by a chaste kiss, but by the twins she gives birth to after the prince has come, fornicated with her sleeping body, and left again. In older versions of Snow White, a passing prince claims the girl’s dead body and locks himself away with it. His mother, complaining of the dead girl’s smell, is greatly relieved when the maiden returns to life. Cinderella doesn’t sit weeping in the cinders while talking bluebirds flutter around her.
During this same period, the Christmas story was scoured clean of bad guys. Bethlehem became an idyllic hamlet for hobbits. The winner-take-all blood-and-guts cosmic struggle was excised for a sweet, snow white tale about a baby, mother and husband, and a stable.
J.R.R. Tolkien warned this “sprucing up” would ruin the ancient stories.5 And, sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. Snow White, Walt Disney’s first feature-length cartoon, expanded the role of the prince, making the square-jawed fellow pivotal to the plot while “shrinking” the dwarfs into comically adorable munchkins. When critics protested the broad changes, Disney responded, “It’s just that people now don’t want fairy stories the way they were written. They were too rough. In the end they’ll probably remember the story the way we film it anyway.”
When the 16th century Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci sailed to China, he brought along religious art to illustrate the gospel. The Chinese embraced pictures of the Virgin Mary cuddling the newborn baby, but were repulsed and horrified by scenes of bloodshed, evil, and the crucifixion. They preferred a pretty story about a cherubic child.
Today’s Snow White is a “pretty” story, but has little to do with our Monday-Friday world. There are no real antagonists, just abstractions about evil – like Buddhist stories. By erasing the devil, the Christmas story has become more like Snow White or a Buddhist fable – having little to do with our Monday-Friday world. The solution is adding one more piece to our nativity sets – the devil.
1 See Revelation 12
2 See Isaiah 14 & Ezekiel 28
3 See Matthew 2
4 William James (1842-1910) was a philosopher and psychologist.
5 See J.R.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-stories,” Andrew Lang Lecture (1938).