Faith Works 11-28-09
"Tinsel" Tells Us Our Story, But Will We Recognize Us?
Imagine reading a story about a train wreck.
There is massive damage not only to the train, but to the neighborhoods all around the track. Many people on board are hurt, none severely (at least, in the immediate aftermath, as far as the triage staff can tell), and the story not only communicates to you some of the camaraderie and good will that takes place in the midst of the wreckage, but it makes you laugh. Not at the people in the wreck, but with them.
Even though you get the sense that, as you read, the train wreck was caused less by whoever was driving the train up in the cab than by the actions of the passengers themselves, plus a lack of roadbed maintenance by the railroad itself.
And yet you still think, reading this story, "I'd go on a train ride with those people."
That's how I would be tempted to sum up "Tinsel," except it isn't about a train wreck, it's about . . .Christmas.
Hank Stuever, the award-winning Washington Post reporter & essayist, literally moved from the DC area to a north Dallas suburb, Frisco, Texas. He spent the holiday season for three years in Frisco, with a few other visits from time to time, following a number of families and ultimately focusing, in this book, on three.
He follows them into a train wreck that happens every year, at about the same time, on the same dangerous curve, with these families and all their friends and neighbors alternately pulling on the emergency stop cord while hollering over the train's intercom to "pick up the pace!"
The subtitle of "Tinsel" is "A Search for America's Christmas Present," and the searching part is present for both the featured families and for Hank himself. He grew up a Catholic altar boy, and his mother is now a nun, but he refers to himself as an "unbeliever" today. He takes a sort of wry anthropological view of the placing of the décor on and around and in the vast McMansions of Frisco, the shopping trips that are both daily and endless. He watches, and listens, and clearly succeeded in becoming, as he explains was his intention, part of each family, in an unofficial Uncle Hank sort of way.
As a gay man from an East Coast capital in the heart of megachurch country, he asks questions about motivation and intention that might not even have occurred to a full participant in all the festivities, in worship services and special programs and even in observing the rituals around "visiting Santa" at the mall.
Given all that, I really think that church Sunday school classes and family home groups would gain some self-understanding in spending some time reading and discussing "Tinsel." Hank Stuever has all too accurately described the hollow center of many of our current Christmas cultural obligations, and the sweet vanilla crème filling inside. The thing about that kind of confection is that it isn't actually hollow – there is something inside, and it may not be nutritious or healthy, but we love it, or at least love the experience of eating it.
The hollow feeling comes later, and the hunger for something substantial.
"Tinsel" is not a mere rant against consumerism, although conspicuous consumption is laid out in painful detail. It isn't a mockery of faith, though some of the less savory aspects of contemporary praise & worship style Christianity is described fairly, if not to anyone's credit. Stuever doesn't have a specific agenda about "what should be done" about Christmas as it's currently practiced in America, nor does he have a list of recommendations at the end of the book.
What may end up being prescriptive is that the economic implosion of the past year closes the book. Frisco is one of the epicenters of the foreclosure meltdown, and a way of life that some of the interviewees actually refer to as "recession proof" is made to wobble, if not actually fall over, like an inflatable Santa sculpture half collapsed into the snow.
Why would church groups want to discuss "Tinsel"? Well, because I think Frisco is just far enough away to let us safely discuss whether or not this is actually about us, and ask what we would want to do about that if it's true.
And by the way, I'm told that as Stuever was making his final decision on where to go, the north Columbus, Ohio suburban area was in his final three.
I'm not sure if we would be able to read that book as honestly, but I don't think it would have been a bit different, other than the names.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him about your views on seasonal excess at email@example.com, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.com.