Cultural decay shows itself in a variety of odd moments. I recall people’s shock at the public nature of Bill Clinton’s immorality in the 1990’s; a stroll through any modern art museum demonstrates obvious decline (the North Carolina Museum of Art facilitates this reaction through the display of its excellently curated collection in a chronological fashion); the collapse of free speech on the college campus is becoming cliche. In the 2018 holiday season, the cultural decline of the West is on full display in two different moments, each indicating the loss of a cultural center that enables flourishing.
The first such moment appears in the loss of a national sense of humor and context. This year, rather than giving our national heart to someone special, we are stripping radio song lists of anything which runs afoul of the new #MeToo orthodoxy. “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” has moved from what Deena Martin calls a “fun, flirty, Christmas song” to a song “promoting rape culture” and has to date been pulled from at least three radio stations.
Radio leadership has, of course, the freedom to play the songs they think will be successful. More concerning than whether radio stations in Ohio and California play a 1959 hit in 2018 is the assumption of the song’s suspicious motivations and the moral duty to suppress such messages.
The Sense Behind a Sense of Humor
While one response involves bewailing the loss of a sense of humor, the Holderness family has adopted a satirical approach. This video is an excellent parody showcasing 2018 sensitivity against the traditional lyrics. Has the United States lost the ability to laugh at a song? Have we lost the ability to distinguish between romance and date rape?
One of Steve Carell’s shining moments in The Office involved an episode centered around Michael Scott’s defense of sexually inappropriate jokes: “In the future, if I want to say something funny, or witty, or do an impression, I will no longer, ever, do those things…” Michael’s “retirement from comedy” does not last long. The humor in this episode comes entirely from the lack of reality—Michael is not actually oppressing, seducing, or raping anyone. His jokes succeed because they tread on quasi-forbidden territory: the humor only works if sexual harassment is known to be wrong, and becomes funny when he pushes the boundaries of acceptability. In an ironic sense, Michael’s off-color jokes reinforce a common morality which recognizes the inappropriateness of sexual harassment in the workplace.
When confronted with his inappropriateness, Michael’s response is to question whether or not humor as a whole is being forbidden. While Steve Carell raised this comedic question in 2009, in 2018 it is a real question: have we lost the ability to laugh?
When Morality Goes, So Does Our Sense of Humor
Beyond the problematic extension of #MeToo, this national conversation has implications for our consideration of Christmas. Christmas just might be the most comedic event of human history. The ridiculousness of the infinite God arriving in the worst of human circumstances (“no room in the inn” during tax season) is the comedy whose hilarity points to the reality of human redemption.
The Mass of the Christ and the history of redemption is the ultimate root of Christmas joy. It’s not Santa, materialism, family, or Christmas music—Jesus is the reason for the season. This “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” phenomenon recalls the loss of a central narrative of Christmas and that narrative’s role in providing the meaning for the season. In the absence of the Incarnation, what reason have we for joy? Plenty of competing narratives seek to draw our hearts away from the manger, but none of them are able to deliver lasting joy or happiness.
A second moment showcasing cultural decline occurred over Thanksgiving Day. My father and I ventured out for a couple of last minute Thanksgiving ingredients, and were astonished to see how many stores were open Thanksgiving Day. We got to pondering: Thanksgiving is premised on giving thanks to God for His bounty and blessing (as Abraham Lincoln states in his proclamation of the first national Thanksgiving); giving thanks to God together is the reason we take off a day or two from work. What happens when we have a semi-sacred day that has lost its sense of the sacred?
Without a conviction that there is more than this world, that we humans are dependent on the beneficence of a Divine Creator, can Thanksgiving survive? My father thinks not—“In a decade, Thanksgiving will be gone,” he predicted. It will be replaced by a new sacred weekend dedicated to America’s god: commerce. Where Thanksgiving is ostensibly a day set aside to celebrate the blessings of the year, the rise of “Black Friday” and the “pre-Black Friday” sales have replaced gratitude with avarice.
Putting the Holy Back in Holiday
As philosopher Charles Taylor argues in his philosophy tome A Secular Age, Western man has moved from an enchanted mentality seeing transcendence in the immanent world to a secular mind that perceives all meaning as existing within the “immanent frame.” We live in a unique age, where our calendar contains the fragments of a unified theological vision of reality. Will such days survive the changes of the 21st century?
These two moments, each centered on a holiday and the ways people celebrate, cause me to step back and consider where we are. In the grand scheme of things, the fate of “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” doesn't really matter. But our attitude towards the songs of a previous generation and our truthful understanding of them, that matters. The choice to put a virtue (gratitude) or a vice (greed) at the center of a holiday, that matters.
The question remains: can we have a holiday without a sense of holiness? This is the real point of the “Baby, it’s Cold Outside” mess—those with a center can stand upon the center and laugh at the folly of the world spinning out of control. As we move into 2019, perhaps we can seek to recover a center. As for me and my household, we will stand upon the Rock of our salvation. We will rejoice in the good world the Good God has made, and our laughter will resound throughout life as we, with David, dance and play before our God. We will marvel at His great salvation, and we will give thanks.