It is the time of season for Christmas movies. Having gotten my way through a number of them, I’m struck by a reoccurring theme. It seems that the most meaningful message North American Christmas movies are capable of is that we ought to believe in Santa Clause. This is the virtue we are called to each Christmas.
Needless to say, I don’t think this is much of a virtue, and find myself rather baffled each time a movie calls me to it.
First, there’s the way that belief functions. In movies like Elf, The Santa Clause, or The Polar Express, belief has little to do with a set of practices integrated with how one sees the world. It has little to do with cultivating a relationship of trust, fear, and/or love with a person who orients one’s being. Instead, belief means believing in something, an object in the world that has little bearing on one’s life. In this way, even if the virtue of believing in Santa Clause is intended to function as a metaphor for the virtue of belief, it remains entirely vacuous. Why is life more worth living if I believe in some object that has no bearing on my life? An exception here is the classic Miracle on 34th Street, in which “believing in Santa Clause” means leaving behind a world of strict practicality and empirical reasonableness in favour of a world of excessiveness in which silly things like love, imagination, and hope can function. But, in this movie, belief in Santa Clause is not primarily the belief that some (magical) object exists out there. Instead, belief means coming to trust and love the robust character of Kris Kringle.
Second, even if we do accept that “belief for its own sake” does impact one’s life, I am far from convinced that this is a good thing. “Believing” that your child does not have a serious mental illness, no matter what he or she or others say is not virtuous. Holding onto the warm feeling you get when you “just know” that homosexuality is an abomination, that you do not come from a monkey, and that climate change is a hoax, no matter what the secular authorities/deniers say, is not virtuous. Hanging onto the belief that you are a gentle animal lover when you eat industrial meat every day is not virtuous. I could go on. In 21st century North America, we see art as a way to retreat away from reality into illusion, and faith as a way to escape the difficulties of the world. We do not need more messages telling us that it is good to cloud our sight with comforting illusions. A God that relentlessly calls us to be honest with ourselves and others and a Hope that forces us to engage with the messiness of everyday life may be worth believing in – but by this point we’re far from a discussion of “belief for its own sake” and even further from the conviction that a magical creature gives people presents at Christmas.
I suspect that the reason “belief for its own sake” is such a popular theme is that it avoids all the nasty connotations of promoting some particular religious or political way of life. Instead, movies today have the sense to promote only those themes that are general enough for everyone to be able to accept, such as the universal notion of belief (in something, anything at all). This is the third issue I have with movies that tell me that all I have to do to be virtuous is believe in Santa Clause. I hope that I’m not surprising anyone by saying that such a notion of universal belief is the furthest thing from universal. Rather, it is a dominant culture taking its belief system, voiding it of its content, and then putting it out again as something universal; the implicit claim is that if all belief systems likewise voided themselves of all content they would arrive at the same place. However, this is simply a projection of the universal aspirations of western ideology. It is not universal (which is why a middle-class, suburban, culturally Christian, white family are always the people at stake). It is, on the other hand, completely vapid and no less insidious than other colonial ideas for being so.