Bankruptcy of Spirit

Who would Jesus punch for an Xbox?

The holiday season has officially begun with widespread reports of near rioting at various big-box retailers, including the Wal-Mart in Renton, where the police had to be called in to quell crowds driven to a frenzy over the chance to buy laptop computers at a deep discount.

So-called “Black Friday”—as in black ink the day after Thanksgiving and the official start of the annual retail binge that’s become Christmas—has become a rite akin to the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. We are treated to film footage and video accounts of rabid consumers kicking, punching, goring, and trampling each other for, well, it doesn’t matter what it’s for. Stuff.

Forgive me if I have an Andy Rooney moment, but remember when “Black Friday” wasn’t a story? Remember when Christmas wasn’t used as just another economic marker, a kind of rectal temperature taking of the national well-being? Remember when shopping was either a pleasure or a private anguish, not a public spectacle, let alone a trauma? Remember when we didn’t keep score, we merely did the best we could as individuals and families?

I see two distressing trends here. One is that our media have become obsessed with quantifying everything, from holiday sales figures to athletes’ salaries to movie box-office receipts. For the sake of injecting a competitive or disaster angle into everything, we now track the fiscal ups and downs of every move. The meaning of everything is determined by the bottom line. We’ve become a bar-chart society, and we track metrics like commodities traders.

Second, both news and entertainment have begun fusing into a variant of reality TV. Our entertainment is not great films or literature about conflict, it is conflict itself, delivered by ubiquitous Minicams. It’s the difference between reading Shakespeare or Dickens and watching cockfights or Survivor. Our tales of retail madness around the holidays feed our taste for turning everything into Darwinian blood sport. We’re happy to watch real children and families being abused on network nanny shows or made a spectacle of on Dr. Phil’s stage; we watch attention-starved anorexics duke it out to be the next top model or next year’s second-rate Vegas act. We’re like the Romans in the Coliseum for whom the equivalent of must-see TV was watching what a pride of lions could do to a bunch of unarmed slaves. We care little about plot; it’s the abuse that exhilarates. “News” events like Black Friday mania are effectively manufactured for our entertainment.

The sad accounts of holiday shopping insanity appeal in part because we spectators can take solace in the fact that there is someone out there—maybe lots of someones—more desperate, more willing to be humiliated, more pathetic, more deserving of scorn than we are. Better to be a fan in the stands than to be struggling in the arena yourself, right?

Watching people duke it out over Christmas gifts distracts us from the fact that we’re all suffering from diminishment. We can roll our eyes over their foolishness without thinking about the bigger picture, that these foolish shoppers paid $2.50 a gallon for gas to drive miles and miles to fight with their neighbors over electronic merchandise, which they’ll buy on credit, that was made by foreign workers in countries where their living-wage job wound up. We’re getting desperate because we’re being drained.

If people thought about the real context, maybe there’d be real riots.

With this general bankruptcy of spirit, it’s no wonder the religious right is up in arms over the desecration of Christmas, the turning of a sacred season into a pie chart supervised by politically correct bureaucrats and retail-industry consultants. Evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell is upset because a Christmas tree in Boston was renamed a “holiday tree,” which, he says, is part of a concerted effort to “steal” Christmas. Even as a heathen, I join Falwell in fury. A Christmas tree is a Christmas tree. Are we also going to refer to menorahs as “holiday menorahs” to disguise their association with Jews and Hanukkah? If you strip Christmas of its religious and symbolic meaning, you’re left with nothing but the emptiness exemplified by the few things you can still talk about, like sales figures and shopping riots. Who would Jesus punch for an Xbox? This is a concept of Christmas that would make Scrooge, the Grinch, and Mr. Potter all happy.

The spiritual umbrella the celebration of Christmas provides in American society also shelters non-Christians, including those who celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the pagan yule, or some solo, secular creation that allows us to exist, for a few days, nights, or weeks, in a sacred zone where the last thing on our minds or in our hearts is the latest sales figures for Wal-Mart or Target.

We seem to be living in the dystopia that Jimmy Stewart was trapped in during It’s a Wonderful Life, only there are no angels to snap their fingers and wake us from the nightmare—no angels, that is, except, as Lincoln phrased it, the better angels of our nature.

It’s time for them to earn their wings.