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The Secularization of Thanksgiving and the Sacralization of the Military

For this Thanksgiving Eve, a re-post that continues to seem timely:

I have a deep ambivalence about Thanksgiving as a holiday. For example, it's not properly part of the (transnational) church's liturgical year, and it tends to be easily conflated with American civil religion--while also tending to paper over the history of colonialism. But while the "official" holiday is at least questionable, certainly gratitude and thanksgiving are central to the Christian life. Indeed, in the organization of the Heidelberg Catechism, the entirety of the Christian life is encompassed under the rubric of gratitude.

So, ambivalence aside, it doesn't take much coaxing for me to take a day to enjoy a feast and football with family and friends (even if that means having to watch the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys). But my friend, Mark, and I both commented again this year on how puzzling it was to see the incessant military references and images on the Thanksgiving broadcasts. It was like the NFL was somehow broadcasting on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Why would Thanksgiving be so interconnected with the armed forces?

But I think I've discerned the logic to this. I know I've noted (complained!) about this before, but I think I've further crystallized the linkage. For some reason, broadcast television always feels compelled to secularize religious and quasi-religious holidays; this is, in some ways, part and parcel of other secularizing currents in commercial culture. But when Thanksgiving is secularized, what's lost is precisely the One to whom we would render gratitude. In other words, we end up being thankful for "gifts" without being able to recognize the Giver.

So we come up with a substitute Giver, which is something like the idea of "America"--the land of the free. And while there are alternative conceptual histories that would actually honor how much the United States was conceptually forged--that the U.S. is really the experimental product of ideas--our current anti-intellectual climate would rather think of "America" as the product of force and might (as the national anthem prefers). So if we are thankful for America, we're thankful to the military who, proverbially, "protect our freedom, " "keep us free," "make the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom," etc. Soldiers are thus revered as the warrior-priests of freedom.

And what are we free for? Well, to shop. And so the best expression of thanksgiving is precisely Black Friday, that Dionysian display of consumerist passion when people literally die in the frantic pursuit of consumer goods.

In sum, the secularization of thanksgiving leads to the sacralization of the military as the guardians of consumer freedom. Such secularization, then, is not a-religious but otherwise-religious. A secularized thanksgiving yields a uniquely American idolatry.


"Our" Novelist: Marilynne Robinson? Or Saul Bellow?

As an "immigrant" to the Reformed tradition, I have often found that some of the "natives" in the tradition resonate with Chaim Potok's The Chosen--a staple of high school curricula (or at least the Chrisitan school curricula with which I'm familiar).  I think I understand why: the novel paints a picture of a tight-knit community whose identity is a blend of faith and blood, spirituality and ethnicity--a reality very analogous to the Reformed communities of which I have been a part.  Indeed, it is perhaps not entirely ironic when I describe myself to these friends as a resident "Gentile."  

I was struck by a different kind of analogy with the Jewish community suggested in James Davison Hunter's important book, To Change the World.  Criticizing triumphalist and misguided Christian programs for "transforming culture," Hunter points out the disproportionate cultural influence of the Jewish community in the United States.  When I had opportunity to interview Hunter about the book, I returned to this theme:

JKAS: Your analogy to the Jewish community in the United States—an analogy you touch on in the book—is intriguing. For instance, I find myself imagining an emerging school of Christian literature, a sort of Christian parallel to the work of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, and others that is mainstream in the sense that their work appears in the New Yorker and is reviewed in the New York Review of Books, but is also constantly struggling with a kind of marginality and difference. That is, it seems like Roth (I’m thinking of The Ghost Writer and the Zuckerman novels) is often dealing with a sense of alienation—being at the center of culture but never quite “in.” Is that the kind of parallel or analogy you mean to suggest?

JDH: I think that is exactly right. Protestantism has been moving from the mainstream to the margins of American society over the last 150 years or so. This reconfiguration in the social world has been especially intense in the last half of the twentieth century. (Christianity, in its broad range of communities, has participated in this.) This marginalization is the source of some incredibly interesting dynamics. For one, it has certainly animated the politicization of evangelicalism and parts of Roman Catholicism in the effort to reverse the trend. At the same time, it has also forced an ecumenism among the orthodox communities in these traditions that would not have likely happened without the structural change.

But most interesting to me is that the increasing marginality of Christianity to the larger culture has also created a tension that is beginning to yield creative energy. This dynamic is similar to that which is described by Thorstein Veblen in his essay, “The Intellectual Pre-eminence of the Jews in Modern Europe,” published in 1919. Veblen argued that the intellectual achievement of the Jews was due to being caught between “the conventions into which [they have] been born” and the conventions of the gentile “into which [they have] been thrown.” Their creativity and achievement, in other words, was rooted in their marginal status in an alien world—of never being quite at home anywhere. In my view, there are signs that these dynamics are beginning to have the same effect within the Christian community. We’ve certainly seen this in recent decades in the contribution of Christians to philosophy and American religious history. We’re seeing signs of it in other areas of intellectual life as well—possibly including an inchoate school of Christian literature. But before we get too excited, it is worth noting Veblen’s own cautionary observation that should the Jews ever accommodate completely to the mainstream of culture, the springs of their creativity would dry up.

The history of the Jewish community in America through the twentieth century is a history of a community that was very tactical in its use of social and financial capital on behalf of scientific and cultural achievement. We have much to learn from them, not least from how they have thrived in a world that has been indifferent at times and outright hostile at other times.

Again, aspects of this conversation could equally describe Reformed communities that have a rich cultural vision, animated by a desire to be engaged, creative contributors to the common good.  

Given these analogies and overlaps, I have been an especially interested reader of an unearthed lecture given by Jewish novelist Saul Bellow back in 1988, "A Jewish Writer in America," recently published in two parts in the New York Review of Books (see Part 1 and Part 2).  So over my next couple of posts here at The Twelve, I want to tease out this analogy through some of Bellow's suggestive reflections on the place of the Jewish intellectual in American culture.  Following up on Hunter's intuition, I want to suggest that perhaps we Reformed folk might find more germane wisdom from Bellow and Roth than Updike and Robinson.  In the meantime, enjoy the Bellow pieces and I'll see you back here in a couple of weeks for further reflection on these themes.  

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