As much as I am a “theologian” (whatever that means), I also have a love for history, especially good history that re-orients the church. Enter Prof. John Anthony McGuckin, who wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Santa. I highly encourage everyone to go give it a read. Heres the first paragraph:
ST. NICHOLAS was a super-saint with an immense cult for most of the Christian past. There may be more icons surviving for Nicholas alone than for all the other saints of Christendom put together. So what happened to him? Where’s the fourth-century Anatolian bishop who presided over gift-giving to poor children? And how did we get the new icon of mass consumerism in his place?
Prof. McGuckin is a Romanian Orthodox Priest, a scholar’s scholar and he not only understands capitalism parodying the church (much like Eugene McCarraher), but McGuckin touches on areas, even in this short op-ed piece, that are sometimes left to the margins in relation to the capitalistic aping of the church. To list the subjects off, he hits on: race; slavery (sexual); preferential option for the poor; uses “feminist history” (that is, focusing on the females in history, which is not limited to females of power, but generally the opposite because historically females in western history didn’t en-mass have much power); the corporation’s use of the church (turning from the poor to the rich); and infuses the entire text with “iconic” images – with “icon” functioning on two levels, one as the colloquial term for icon and a second as the ecclesial idea of icon; and he finally even brings in the idea of saints. He does all this in a very short time, and without the text becoming unwieldy. I think this might be too smart for the New York Times.
It was McGuckin’s subsumed thematic use of icons that struck me as the most interesting. It was no surprise to me that McGuckin used icons in this piece. In the one history class I did take from McGuckin, he made a point of continually coming back to the seventh ecumenical council, called Nicaea 2 (the council on aesthetics, specifically on icon use), and its over all importance, which the west has largely forgotten. (His wife also makes excellent icons and teaches students from time to time how to make them as well.)
Implied in the piece, I would venture to say, is that American capitalistic advertising is the bastardizing of ecclesial iconography (and the saints as well) – one of the highest forms of Christian art. The term simulacrum comes to mind. I’m also suspicious that the reason the west doesn’t see the conflict is because we have an aesthetic vacuum. Churches today (or at least the megachurch) are built to look like business parks or corporation complexes and the art that depicts Christian life is niche marketing, like Christian Camo or Truth Soul Armor, or the mundane Thomas Kinkaide marketed everywhere on everything. The west so very much needs a revival in Christian aesthetics and a theology of icons seems to be the place to start. Its been there for century upon century, just like the Christian calendar. We just have to pick it up.
One last interesting observation. Often Christianity is blamed for absorbing other religions, or at least pagan religious holidays; however, in this case, it was Coca-Cola that infused the now common conception of Santa with an Odin like figure – a patriarchal god of the dark sky. Hows that for a parting bit of information to chew on?