With apologies to C S Lewis
It falls to me again at this time of year to remind you and your field staff to remain on a heightened state of alert as Christmas day approaches. As you know, this festival presents formidable dangers of positive spiritual influence spreading through the churches, even those of the secularised and materialistic West. Maximum vigilance is expected of all cadres right through until Christmas day itself. The cancellation of all leave remains in force until 6pm that day, by which time most Christians, like everyone else, will be so thoroughly sedated by consumptive excess (or enervated by suppressed family resentments) that no further dangers present themselves.
I hope I won’t need to remind you of the overriding objective of our pre-Christmas operations: to smother as many Christmas events as possible so fully under a comforting blanket of heart-warming and mind-numbing sentimentality as to effectively neutralise its message – a message which, I need hardly remind you, if it were to be unleashed in its radical meaning in the churches, would threaten to do deep and enduring damage to our interests.
Maintain resolutely our well-established tactic of inducing churches to ensconce the story of the birth of Jesus safely within a feel-good programme of child-centred family rituals and indulgent seasonal festivities. Our key performance indicator – how many 6-12 year-olds with adoring parents in train, cameras in hand, can be gathered around a manger during Christmas services – remains in force.
If this well-established course is maintained, no recourse to militant anti-Christian apologetics will be required. Indeed such should generally be avoided, since experience shows that they only succeed in arousing the swivel-eyed enthusiasm of our useful idiots in the secularist societies who, if they pipe up during this of all seasons, just come across as mean-spirited killjoys.
Suffice it to employ, again, our tried-and-tested deflationary tactic of emasculation by absorption. There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to achieve this goal. Activities must be customised to the increasingly diversified church contexts we face today, especially those springing up well beyond mainstream denominational structures, on which, in simpler times, my generation of operatives cut their teeth.
Let me remind you, however, of some consistently effective guidelines whereby the true meaning of the story of Jesus’s birth can be pleasingly elided.
Wherever possible, work to elicit from Christians feelings of pity for the personal plight of ‘the baby Jesus’ (refugee, born in an animal feeder, illegitimate, etc.), always ensuring that any link between such individual misfortunes and wider systems of injustice – especially contemporary equivalents – is left fully obscure. Most importantly, ward off any possible inclination to worship at the cataclysmic appearance on the stage of human history of the Enemy himself – ‘veiled in flesh’, as one of their more perceptive hymn-writers put it (happily there aren’t that many).
Where attention is allowed nevertheless to gravitate toward Jesus as ‘saviour’ – this cannot be avoided entirely even during the Christmas season – at all costs ensure that ‘salvation’ continues to be understood in wholly individual, interior, ahistorical terms. Thus, in sermons, ‘Jesus was born into this world to save me from my sins’ is tolerable. While this can do severe damage to individuals, it rarely exercises any wider impact on the structures of public power we control. On the other hand, ‘Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God and reclaim the entirety of his estranged creation’ must be forestalled at all costs. Once this maniacal notion gets into the heads of fanatical lay people (clergy are generally not the problem), there is no telling the corrosive influence that can be inflicted upon those power structures.
You’ll recall that a special danger is presented by what the church calls ‘The Magnificat’ (which many of the faithful actually believe could have been written by a pregnant, unmarried 14-year-old Palestinian girl!). While this is routinely trotted out in services during the Christmas season, we have been astonishingly successful over many centuries in neutralising its explosive meaning. But an increasing number of field reports from our Academic Division point to the real danger that its original Jewish significance is being rediscovered by influential Christian theologians, a few of whom are actually being read by church leaders and even by lay people. Our sure-fire methods of pre-empting any such transmissions, so easily productive of spectacular results in former times, are becoming less and less reliable by the year.
So let me remind you in no uncertain terms of that profoundly objectionable Jewish-inspired meaning. On its surface, the offending passage seems merely to reiterate the familiar depiction of a promised Messiah throwing off foreign oppression and bringing about the long-hoped-for restoration of the nation of Israel – ‘casting down the mighty from their thrones and raising up those of low estate’ (one has to concede the sublimity of the prose of the ‘King James Version’ at this point).
Now, if the passage’s meaning were merely that, it could have been quietly sidelined by leaders of the early church as a remnant of a Jewish theology now consigned to a dispensation whose time, they thought, had gone. However, in the words of Mary, the human mother of Jesus, the passage dares to identify Jesus himself as that Messiah, while prefiguring a narrative in which the triumph of the Messiah is achieved not through coercive force – that would have been just another doomed human attempt at domination, so easy to elicit, so pleasurable to watch, and so useful to our purposes – but through what Christians persist in calling ‘the power of suffering love’.
Now while this is, of course, a wholly contemptible sentiment – one in which hubristic self-flagellation masquerades as ‘redemptive self-sacrifice’ – it has shown itself to be dangerously potent. Indeed it is no exaggeration to suggest that, historically, the most sustained damage to our interests has arisen when Christians have started to take hold of the risible idea that the Enemy is reasserting his rule over creation through the display of ‘powerlessness’ – followed by some fanciful dream of ‘resurrection’. Warn staff not to fall into the trap of merely mocking this absurd notion: it has proven itself a deadly weapon against our most impressive battalions for two thousand years and must be resisted with all the instruments at our disposal.
Instruct all operatives, therefore, to work unrelentingly to smother, divert or snuff out this dangerously subversive reading of the birth of Jesus wherever it rears its ugly head, and to insinuate in the churches a consistent preoccupation with ‘gentle Jesus meek and mild’ – right through until the spiritually soporific effects of all the usual seasonal delights take over and complete our work for us.
I trust that I will again receive from you in the New Year cheering reports of the success of our determined efforts in the field to muzzle the true ‘gospel’ during this moment of seasonal danger.
This first appeared as the December KLICE Comment and we are grateful for permission to republish it on Fulcrum.
Dr Jonathan Chaplin is Honorary Fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge where he contributes to the Centre for Faith in Public Life, and Senior Fellow of the Canadian Christian think-tank, Cardus. His publications include Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England (SCM 2022), Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM 2021) and The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican Reflections on British Identity and European Solidarity, co-edited with Andrew Bradstock (SPCK 2020).