Peace on earth to…somebody

Here is the way Luke puts it.

“And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favors.”

All kinds of new issues began to show up at my door when I shifted over from trying to understand biblical texts from one mode to another. The one I learned first required that I read the texts as if they were accounts of events by eyewitnesses. I have taken to calling this mode “the journalistic fallacy.” The mode I favor now, when I can remember to use it, I call “narrative focus.” It emphasizes the questions:“who is saying what to whom and why?” It treats these texts as literary forms, each element of which is there to represent something important to the author or to the author’s community. A common question would be, “Why did Luke say that?”

I am satisfied with the approach to Bible study that this makes possible, but it does raise new questions about what to do with religious texts that have been taken over lock, stock, and barrel by a culture that has its own notions of what God has done or what God should do.

God would not, we are sure, say anything like, “Peace on earth to those who enjoy my favor.” If he really understood what He was doing, He would say, “Good will to men,” or possibly “Peace to men of good will.” If He really understood the importance of being inclusive.

This is the time of year when we sing Christmas carols. We sing them in both sacred and secular settings. In neither setting do we sing “Peace to those God favors.” There are some good reasons for this and also some bad reasons. One of the good reasons is that it is hard to formulate the best understanding of what the verse says (Luke 2:14) into a line that is easy to sing. One of the bad reasons is that Christmas is the time when we like to pretend there is a civic religion. It is a degerminated and safely secular form of Christianity.

I admit that is is a spectacular image of what the shepherds saw, but it does distinguish, as many pictures do not, between the one angel who explained what was going on and the reserves he called on to deliver the cantata which contains all the problematic words.

As a public property, its theological underpinnings need to be in line with the people doing the singing—or at least not so out of line with those underpinnings that they will notice. And people who have a different view of God (Christians, for instance) or of the best understanding of what the text says (scholars, for instance) are faced with a dilemma. Should they say “That song is ours and you can’t have it?” or should they say “It too—that understanding of what Christmas is about—is worthy and as a citizen and a participant in the general culture, I will join you in celebrating it.”

I actually like both versions. Singing the “peace to all” version adapts the message of the angels to the message we so desperately need today. All it costs is cutting the umbilical cord that connects it to a vital and meaningful home. Singing the “peace to those whom He favors” version keeps Luke’s understanding of what was said front and center at the risk of alienating your fellow citizens, who are all about inclusiveness. When I sing either version in the right spirit, I find it positive and engaging. When I make one primary and criticize the other for its deficiencies (see above) it goes a little flat on me. [1]

What to do? Recognize the benefits of each version in the context where it belongs—the civil religion version here, the religious doctrine version there—and enjoy each one for what it offers.

I am not entirely sure I am capable of that, but I think it is the right answer.

[1] And since “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which has that text, is written in four flats already, that may be a cost my singing cannot afford.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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