Shortly before Christmas, when I was four, I challenged my mother on Santa Claus. I asked (as I imagine many children do), “If he’s fat, how can he fit down the chimney?” My mother answered, “I guess he’s magic.” The answer was acceptable enough. He rode a flying sleigh around the world in one night and evidently had a cadre of elves who could secure thousands of Barbie vans and Baby-Come-Back dolls without ever making themselves visible at the mall. I guessed he probably was magic. And if my mother said it, it was true. This was the woman who once spent ten minutes at a grocery store bakery counter insisting that she be allowed to pay for a doughnut the cashier had forgotten to charge her for the previous day.
Two years later, when a friend told me at a sleepover, “Santa Claus is really your parents,” I was disproportionately (although not uncharacteristically) worked up. Several years later, I took up the issue again with my mother:
“But I ASKED you about it. I gave you a chance to tell me, and you just said, ‘I guess he’s magic.'”
“Well, you knew we didn’t believe in magic.”
“WHAT?? Mom. We believed Noah put ALL THE ANIMALS on the ark, that three men were thrown into a furnace and didn’t burn, and that a pack of lions’ mouths were sealed so they wouldn’t eat a guy who spent the night in their den.”
“That wasn’t magic. That was God.”
Okay, yes. I had been taught the distinction. I knew God wasn’t magic. Still, for a four-year-old raised to believe in the supernatural, accepting Santa’s ability to navigate chimneys as magic is not a giant leap.
Believing in the supernatural became increasingly hard for me as I got older, as deeply ingrained as it was. In high school, I was terrified of looking stupid, and I felt, increasingly, that talking about the Bible as literal truth made me look that way. In college, as a literature student, I began to see the broader picture -the horrific damage that had been done to people and cultures in the name of missions work, the warring among religious groups over the power to control the narrative, and the many world views that felt as real and true to the people who held them as Christianity felt to me. It became harder, and less desirable, for me to believe that ours was the only truth. I would have preferred to be selective and piece together my own theology, but I was deeply afraid to do that, or even to raise hard questions. Christianity was the core of my identity, and I feared that if I pulled one thread, it would all unravel for me.
In my early adulthood, I made a firm decision to take the Bible, in its entirety, at face value. I said to my mom, “Maybe we’re wrong. But so what? If it turns out in the end that none of it was true, I won’t be sorry to have lived my life striving to be like Christ.” And there I remained, for many years. I clung to Jesus, his words, and his life as the core of my faith. I taught Sunday School. I served in church leadership. And as for all the issues that continued to make me uncomfortable, I hoped and trusted that if God was who I thought He was, He had it figured out and I would have to live with not knowing the answers.
And then it was 2016. And the Republicans put forward a candidate who was “different.” For awhile it was funny, like the idea of Arnold Schwartzenegger being governor of California. Then it became serious. He made anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, and blatantly sexist statements. He called people losers and mocked them like a seven-year-old, he lied openly, and he talked about wanting to punch protesters in the face and “joked” that he would pay legal fees for supporters who did. It made sense that a few isolated, angry white men yearning for pre-civil-rights days would relish the idea of Trump as president. But I genuinely expected that Christians would be at the front of the line speaking out against his behavior. It seemed obvious. He was everything we are called not to be. How do we claim to promote Christian values and even consider placing someone openly hateful in our highest position of power?
Then the audio recording came out -the one where he bragged that he forces himself on women because he can. Because he’s a star. And that should have sealed it. But it didn’t. Supporters came out in his defense. Christians compared him to King David, using his sexually violent language to validate him as God’s choice. He claimed he could walk out on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and people would still support him. And by this point, he seemed to be right.
I stood by as people already skeptical of Christianity had their beliefs confirmed. Evangelical Christianity was aligning itself with hate and claiming “conservative values” as its justification. Muslims, atheists, Buddhists, agnostics -everyone but Christians -spoke out for the vulnerable, for the poor, for the oppressed. Christians defended, rationalized, ignored.
Even though I suspected he might win, when the numbers came out -81% of Evangelicals voting for Trump -I was stunned and devastated. And in the next few months, I circled all the way back to the beginning: to the ark, the lions’ den, a childhood firmly anchored in a loving, merciful, gracious God who so loved the world that He sacrificed His only son. And I wondered what happened. I had chosen to embrace the whole, despite doubts and apparent contradictions, because it all felt worth it if it led me to a life of love, compassion, and kindness. If that was the core, I could live with some discomfort and tension. But the election and all that led up to it suggested that it was not the core. Reeling from what felt like the sudden ripping out of my life’s foundation, I pulled the thread. As I feared, it has left me unraveled and a little lost.
I have been told that I just don’t understand the big picture, that I’m too narrow-minded, that I’m just being influenced by people. I’ve been reminded that I’m studying education, not theology, which I suppose implies that I have no business suggesting that anything is wrong. And maybe it’s true. Maybe I thought I understood the major tenets of Christianity and I never actually did. Maybe a faithful Christian just accepts the assurances of Christian leaders that this is all worth it for a conservative Supreme Court, or that we shouldn’t judge each other for our political choices. But none of that helps me to know what to do now.
I miss my church and the people I came to know and love. I miss feeling grounded in a faith community. I miss being certain. But I don’t know how to be a part of it right now, or how not to. It helps to know I’m not alone -that there are others, some who actually do study theology, who are equally shaken and also struggling to find a place. And I trust that we eventually will. We will either unite around our core and find reconciliation, or we will crumble, and I can’t believe we will let ourselves crumble.
But even if we do, it doesn’t have to be over. Learning the truth about Santa was a necessary step in my coming to understand Christmas as a celebration of God’s gift to the world. Maybe we’re experiencing something similar right now, on a much larger scale. Maybe we will let it all unravel and slowly put it back together again. And maybe we’ll start with God’s love, mercy, and grace and work from there.