Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Notes from my Knapsack 12-21-18

Notes from my Knapsack 12-21-18

Jeff Gill


Where things used to be



My own Christmas memories circle around family scenes and church events, with the usual overlay of retail dreams and commercial fantasy.


I grew up outside of Chicago, and a trip to see the windows at Marshall Fields followed by lunch in the Walnut Room was a necessary part of the holiday. There had to be a dessert made from a scoop of ice cream, a marshmallow, and strategically placed licorice making a snowman in a top hat, matching Uncle Mistletoe flying around near the top of the giant tree in the center of the multi-story room.


Fields' is now Macy's, but the Walnut Room is still there. Uncle Mistletoe is in a display case nearby, for nostalgic former kids like me.


In college when I started Christmas shopping for myself with money I'd earned on my own, I created some memories of shopping and the season in marvelous little shops all of which are gone now. Odd stairs leading nowhere, shelves to the ceiling and cabinets here and there, and lighting casting both shadows and golden circles, far from the bright fluorescence now the norm. Once married, Joyce and I would travel to places during the Christmas to New Year's holiday break that are no longer there, but are oh so vivid in my mind; we had a child a couple of decades ago and took him places where we can't go back to now. Only the annual pictures of a growing child in multiple Santa's laps remain.


And now we've been in Granville long enough there are a collection of "what used to be's" in our thoughts and dimly visible, half-erased, on our mental maps. Some, oddly, we never knew, but though we didn't come to the area until 1989, the fire of the Opera House in 1982 is vivid in a false memory, colored in by pictures and artifacts in places like Elm's Pizza.


In fact, at Elm's there's still a jukebox in my mind, sitting right where a table is now, but it still is part of our family memories about the village and how we left and came back again. (Long story.) Hud's Chevrolet is likewise a mirage in our memory, but the souvenirs of that Williams family history make it a "used to be" for us as Granville residents in 2018. Blackstone's Grocery was a pub before we got here, but between Aline and Tim I catch a hint of it, even as I walk past the Broadway Pub today; Buck Sergeant I barely knew, but the stories about his shop are not hard to find even still.


I catch myself thinking about getting a card or candle at Crosswalk Gifts; as much as I like to tell people to visit Reader's Garden, my mind goes back downstairs again and again across the street to the Granville Times Book Cellar. Hare Hollow and Victoria's Parlor were no secret, well before Les Wexner started putting up white fences in New Albany (which had a grain elevator and feed store downtown I used to stop at, before Rt. 161 became a highway).

So much of Christmas is "used to be," whether it's Grandma's house or a store long gone and forgotten by most. The Hadden Sundblom 1930s & 40s Santa Claus, which did as much for our image of the jolly old elf as Thomas Nast an era before, liked to fiddle with hand cranked phones and old wooden toys as plastic and aluminum were taking over our visual vocabulary. Santa and the holiday season are soaked in nostalgia, however far back you go.


Likewise our village observances of Christmas and New Year and all the little remembrances of what was, mingling with how it is now, and what it might yet become.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him about your memories of what's not there anymore at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Faith Works 12-8-18

Faith Works 12-8-18

Jeff Gill


Christendom, Christianity, and Nativity



When I get to talk to David Woodyard about civil religion and the state of our country, he likes to remind me about the distinction between Christendom and Christianity.

It's a useful distinction, one that points out that there's the faith and practices of those who would follow Christ, the prince of peace, and there's the cultural construct of Christian life which we used to think of as "normal."

In fact, if you look just a scratch below the surface, at the entertainment industry, into politics and justice and foreign policy, there was no golden age of our country actually being comprehensively Christian. The idea of a Christendom had some outward expressions, like Sunday closing laws and Prohibition, but in practice we've been a fairly complicated nation from the get-go.

Yes, the majority religious expression has been Christian, but even there, we've been Protestant and Catholic, Orthodoxy common in Alaska in early days and Pentecostalism since Azusa Street in 1906. Our Christianities have been in the way of our Christendom.

For many Christians, the end of Christendom is visible and disturbing today in a variety of ways: everything is open on Sunday mornings, let alone the afternoons, and liquor is for sale as well. Sports programs for youth take place on Sunday mornings, and public displays of symbols of faith have become contentious, whether on school property or in governmental settings.

What David and I agree on, though, and Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon have written at length on the subject, is that the concept of Christendom can be bad for Christianity. If we Christians, of whatever tribe or faction or denomination, start to assume that the government or the schools or our Biblical epic movies are teaching our faith for us, and we can slack off and let someone else do it for us for free, we lose control of the message. So if the culture changes – and culture is a changeable thing, we've learned in the last few decades, haven't we? – then our Christian formation changes and we can't do much about it.

While my views on the so-called "separation of church and state" are complicated and would take longer than I have in a newspaper column, I do think that Thomas Jefferson was not being disingenuous when he said that it was for the good of the churches more than to benefit the state that he wanted to keep them separated. European Christendom is still paying a price for having state established churches, even if the property upkeep for leaks in the steeple is done through tax dollars.

Churches in America today have an advantage over at least most Christian churches of fifty to seventy-five years ago. There's not even a hint of belief that the city, county, or state government is going to teach our kids the Bible; we have no reason to think that the basic tenets of our faith are going to be communicated from the Oval Office; movies and TV have no interest in religious orthodoxy and we all know it. If we want an accurate sense of our spiritual basics to be transmitted to seekers or children or grandchildren, we need to do it ourselves.

Which is why I think it's a sign of healthy religiosity, and a vital Christianity in Licking County, that there are living nativities going on all over the place. I see signs, I get mailings, and people email me asking if I'd promote their church's live nativity whether in house or drive through.

Twenty years ago, these were fairly unusual, but year by year more churches are doing them. So many that I'm actually not going to list any here, for fear of leaving someone out! (And yes, my own congregation is doing one…)

But I think the new popularity of living nativity presentations is a good thing. South Succotash United Methodist Church might do theirs differently than St. Somewhat's Catholic Church would, and I suspect adherents of each would learn something about their own Christian traditions by seeing how another body arranges and offers the old, old story.

So go visit a few. See a bunch of them, and think about what they're trying to tell you. Because it's a story that has shaped human history, and empires and governments, and you and me, whatever your faith. We can all learn from a good manger scene.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he has been a wise man and a shepherd, but never an angel in a nativity pageant. Tell him how you fit into the story at knapsack77@gmail.com, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.