You've Got to Be Kidding
Updated: Dec 6, 2018
Perhaps you saw the news on the BBC that the Illinois State House has erected a monument to Satan for the holidays. (See headline appended and note in the other picture that the monument is placed right next to a Christmas tree.) The monument is a sculpture of a serpent wrapped around a hand holding an apple. An obvious reference to the biblical story of the serpent’s role in the Garden of Eden.
While I admit I was a bit shocked, it didn’t take too long to realize (a) that freedom of religion and speech all but require that worshippers of Satan be allowed to profess their faith alongside Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, etc. and (b) that we’ve lived in this tension a long time (more on that later), and (c) the juxtaposition of Satanic sculpture and evergreen tree are not that far apart, anyhow (more on that later, too).
Please keep in mind that I am writing as a professing Christian, pastor, and professor of history and theology. So, please hear me out on this.
First, the public spaces in government buildings in America should reflect the principles of the American government, which are inherently agnostic. The founders of our country were very clear about that. I one breath, the First Amendment enshrines freedom of both speech and religion—even—indeed especially—minority religions and speech that is provocative or even troubling. So, it’s entirely appropriate that worshippers of Satan get the same space as worshippers of Jesus, Allah, Krishna, etc.
Second, the symbolic meaning of a snake has been incorporated into our culture for centuries now—and not always in a bad way. I dare say, most people (even Christians) acknowledge the snake as a symbol of healing rather than a symbol of evil. The so-called “Rod of Askelpios” is almost as ubiquitous as the Christian cross. It is, after all, the symbol attached to the healing arts in our culture based not on its evil symbolism in the Judeo-Christian tradition but based on its connection to the god of healing, Askelpios Soter (“Asklepios the Savior”), from Greco-Roman mythology. Christians the world over have embraced this pagan symbol as a marker of blessing rather than curse for centuries. So, strike two—herpetology meet theology.
Finally, the comforting—even celebrated—presence of a so-called Christmas tree also has its roots in pagan worship. Long before Martin Luther is said to have dragged a tree into his home—thus anointing the evergreen tree as a symbol of Christmas--the evergreen tree was a pagan symbol of the tenacity of life and hope in the midst of the bleak death of winter. Even the date of Christmas itself is rooted in the pagan holiday of Natalis Solis Invicti (the “Birth of the Invincible Sun”—the winter solstice) as proclaimed by Emperor Constantine in the fourth century rather than any connection to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. So, in the end, you’ve actually got two pagan symbols propped up next to each other in a secular space dedicated to the principle that all religions are equal. Strike Three.
So, why am I bothering with all this? Because we all live in a world where sacred blends with secular and where science blends with conscience. We live in tension. In the words of the Serenity Prayer (see earlier blog) “Taking, as [Jesus] did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it.”
Many unwanted and uncomfortable things will likely come our way this holiday season. Our responses will be a mixture of nature and nurture, choice and compulsion, synapses and sinfulness, volition and volatility. We will be at once our best self and, in the next moment, our worst selves. Be patient and forgiving, of yourself and others.
If you find yourself being overcome, take a breath, take a break, take a walk, take a moment to reflect on this imperfect, contradictory world and your imperfect and self-contradictory place in it. Then go back in, seek and offer forgiveness as needed, and realize that this, too, shall pass.