A Response to the Grinch Analogy of Faith
By the way, Daniel, I think that I've described what I'm doing very carefully and very helpfully, and I couldn't have done it if you hadn't posted. So please keep doing it! Eventually I'll get to the defending-evangelicals, anti-flaming posts. Trust me!
About the Grinch: David. Dude. Perhaps as a bitter old atheist you missed this one, too. The story of the Grinch Who Stole Christmas is about the Grinch and the transformation of his life. It hinges on the changed heart of the Grinch, not on the loot he stole, you crazy materialist! Were it not so, it might have been called “The Christmas That Was Ruined By Commercialism.”
“In Who-Mart the Who-Boxes stood in the aisle.
So the Who-Carts would have to pass by single-file...”
...but that would have been a slightly different story.It is funny that you miss the point of the Grinch in exactly the same way you miss the point of grace. It is because of the Grinch’s change of heart that he returns with the presents, not because the Who’s have earned anything by enduring a toy-less Christmas. The Who's enjoyed a toy-less Christmas because of what was already changed about their hearts.
You’re missing my point, and I’m sorry if I didn’t make myself clear. What I was trying to do--as I will make clear in my final paragraph--was show how evangelicals can be decent people who wind up being accidentally moralistic, and do so without being idiots or hypocrites, but just decent people trying to solve a problem. If you're willing to accept that evangelicals are moralistic but don't think of themselves that way, and you're also willing to allow that people who do this aren't immoral fools, then you don't need this discussion. But for the Chris Hitchenses out there, I wanted to show that what evangelicals do is something human beings do all the time and while it may be a weakness from one point of view, it's perfectly sensible from another. Since my earlier post was evidently unclear, let me take a slightly different tack.
The moment we think of a story as “good” or “bad,” it stops being just a story about stuff that happened. Stories are “good” or “bad” because they feel, on some level, morally appropriate; they make us happy through some form of internal consistency (it’s not a happy ending, but it feels true to the story that Hamlet dies at the end) or because—in the case of real crowd-pleasers like The Grinch—it reinforces values we all believe in. To show how this works, let’s look at a few bad stories.
Wholly unsatisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and nothing bad happened.”
Slightly more satisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and squandered the whole thing foolishly. He suffered for the rest of his life, remaining forever full of irrational resentment.”
Even more satisfying story: “Once there was an ungrateful son who told his father to go to hell. He demanded his inheritance immediately, then he left and squandered the whole thing foolishly. He realized then that he had made a huge mistake. He never went back, though.”
Truly satisfying story: The Prodigal Son, which you presumably saw coming a mile off.
When we rank these stories as more or less satisfying—and I doubt many people would disagree very hotly with my ranking—we are constructing a hierarchy of values: what lessons are so important and so comforting that we like to hear them told to us. (I don’t mean this in a bad way.) In the list above we can see that it is satisfying for hurtful people to be punished, but it is more satisfying that they come to realize that they were wrong, and best of all is the story that tells us that there is forgiveness and love even for very great sinners.
I would add that if the parable of the Prodigal Son had him returning without remorse, but simply because he needed a place to live for free for the rest of his life, and if he apologized grudgingly only once, and still expected that his inheritance include half of what was left…well, it wouldn’t be nearly as popular a story. It would, however, tell a story about truly radical acceptance and grace, because in the original story you could argue that the Prodigal Son sort of “earned” his forgiveness by at least admitting he screwed up and returning to live as a servant. His heart grew three sizes that day. But a lesser effort would not have deserved the forgiveness he got. It wouldn’t register as a satisfying story. (This is why, I imagine, there are at least a thousand times more sermons about the Prodigal Son than there are about the Eleventh Hour Workers, even though the theological gist is the same. But even the Eleventh Hour Workers, please note, work for an hour. They don’t just get the day’s wage for free. If grace is ever completely free, you’ve just eliminated the whole story.)
So in the Grinch, the overt anti-materialist message is quite obvious: “Christmas doesn’t come from a store.” What I’m trying to point out is that for all practical purposes, the Whos get to have it both ways, because along with our hierarchy of values that says “Christmas isn’t about toys,” there’s another less noble part of us that says, “I know this, but I also feel that a Christmas without toys would really suck.” Seuss could have had the toys fall off of Mount Crumpet and then had the Grinch go back and see the happiness, come to his realization, etc. But the message is clear: Spiritual Christmas is better than Christmas of Materialism, but Spiritual Christmas + Toys is better than both. If the Grinch lost all the toys, do you really think it would have been as popular or as satisfying a story? That’s what I was saying when I say the Whos “earn” the right to have toys by proving they don’t need them. They don’t earn it overtly in the text, with the Grinch actually saying, “I’ll destroy all their toys unless the Whos prove they don’t want them!” But when we see the Whos singing happily without their toys, we are (hopefully) happy and impressed, and we want to see them rewarded somehow. That’s how they earn, not only the toys, but the right to enjoy the toys. And if I’m correct, by telling ourselves this lesson over and over again (in A Christmas Carol, The House Without a Christmas Tree, Jingle All The Way, and a million others), this is how we earn the right to enjoy our toys as well. We’re not materialist bastards who mistakenly think, like the Grinch, that Christmas is all about toys! Our hearts could grow three sizes, too, if they ever needed to. We might have been potential Grinches, but we agreed with the story and now we’re potential Whos.
Note that I’m not saying that we’re idiots for doing this. (Nor do I think Christians are idiots for telling themselves the story of grace and works.) What I’m saying is that we find the Grinch story’s ending satisfying because deep down, toys make us happy—possibly more happy than we feel they should. But we find the Grinch’s story—the overtly preachy part—satisfying because it tells us we aren’t that bad after all, because we obviously know what’s important, and we got there ahead of that poor Grinch. We are constantly tempted by materialism, and by saying an incantation together like “Christmas doesn’t come from a store!” we feel better about taking notes during the commercial breaks. This isn’t hypocrisy, exactly. It’s a way of coping with a natural conflict. If we stopped telling the Grinch story and just embraced materialism without embarrassment, I’d really start to worry about our culture.
What I’m trying to suggest is that it’s just possible—I didn’t say it was a sure thing—that when evangelicals talk about the distinction between grace and works, and how they’re not legalistic like those darned Pharisees, they may actually be saying, “Thank goodness we’re not like the Grinch!” When in fact, there’s a distinct resemblance between evangelicals and Pharisees; it’s just gone undercover because of a very popular narrative that gets repeated whenever someone worries about being pharisaical, to turn Grinches into Whos. And you can tell it’s there because, just like with the Grinch story, it starts to look less consistent the more you poke at it.