As an Anglo-Saxonist, I am keenly aware of the way that the transfer of gifts reflects the norms that underlie a society. And so I got thinking about what the way we do gift-giving might tell us about ourselves. In particular, gift-giving is oriented toward the receiver rather than both parties. In a book I have been reading recently, Stanley Hauerwas suggests that the American myth of democracy is that we are living out the narrative we would have chosen had we freely chosen it prior to entering the narrative of history — we reject the given-ness of things. Analogously, it seems to me that, when we buy gifts, we buy them in the hope that they are what the other person would have bought had she bought them herself — we try as far as possible to remove any surprise or potential awkwardness associated with the “given-ness” of a surprise gift – and we ratify this by considering it socially acceptable to return or exchange gifts to get what we actually want. And I wonder how this might affect our theology; in particular, I wonder if our cultural practice of gift giving does not make it more difficult to accept the given-ness of the world God has given us. To be sure, there has always been the problem of evil in the world, the question of how the presence of evil can be reconciled with this given-ness if God is good. But I wonder if our gift giving practices don’t tend to diminish the problem of evil into a problem of spoiled creatures. Even if they don’t ultimately agree with him, the most devout person, I think, can feel some sympathy with Ivan Karamazov when he wants to return his ticket to the universe in the face of all its evil. But I wonder how many of those wanting to return their tickets nowadays are really of the cast of Ivan — I fear that they are simply model consumers, ready to return the gift of creation because it doesn’t cater to their every whim.
For the next 23 days, I will be posting reflections on Christmas and Christmas culture as a way of counting down Advent. My posts will orbit about two themes: the primary reason for Christmas, the coming of Immanuel (God with us); and the odd and bizarre way that Christmas culture relates to this advent. These posts are informed by G.K. Chesterton’s analysis of Christmas and Dickens. See Chesterton on Christmas in my notes, from his biography of Dickens.
Next in the series: Zechariah, Father of John and John