I HATE THE LITTLE DRUMMER BOY: BAD THEOLOGY AND BAD MUSIC

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I hate this Christmas song.  I know what you’re saying.  Hate is a pretty strong word. Why do I have to say hate?  I think hate is a fine word.  It’s a Biblical word.  God is quite fond of hate.  There are things worth hating:  Nazis, Stalinists, and crappy Christmas songs.  Chiefly among the later I rank the aforementioned “Little Drummer Boy”.  It’s the worse Christmas song God ever allowed to be written.   I could have equivocated there, but I went all in.

People acknowledge their distaste for music all the time.  My daughters listen to everything but like nothing I love.  I’m expressing my aversion for a time honored Christmas classic my wife really enjoys.  These reflections aren’t for the health of my marriage.  On the other hand, taste is subjective.  Speech is still free.   If you’ll hear me out, no pun intended, I’m prepared to be the villian on this one.   But ultimately I think there’s a valid theological point to be made.  Really, it’s not about the song itself. It’s about what the song implies about God and our relationship with God.  For me, this is why “The Little Drummer Boy” is so far off track.

I’ll begin in the Netherlands.  On May 13th, 1988 the great Jazz trumpeter Chet Baker jumped from a second story window of the Hotel Prins Hendrik in Amsterdam.  His depression was exacerbated by his addiction to heroin and cocaine.  Chet was a broken vessel.  Despite his many flaws, for over forty years, he brought genius to the trumpet.  Chet Baker, along with Miles Davis, defined west coast jazz.  Baker was one of the most important musicians, composers, and performers of the 20th century.  Imagine James Dean and Frank Sinatra, all rolled into one, playing a trumpet.  That’s Chet Baker.

Baker made this contribution on an instrument defined by three valves.  With those three valves, pressed in different combinations and the use of different facial muscles, dozens of note combinations can be achieved.  It’s miraculous experience to watch well-trained jazz trumpeters find music where music shouldn’t exist.  To the doubters and skeptics, it is possible to glimpse images of God’s presence inching toward humanities darker inclinations.  Good music opens up the possibility of God’s intervention in our lives in new and unexpected ways.  I’ve seen Doc Severinsen perform.  A good trumpet player will make you believe in God.

What can we say about this mythical tale of a boy, his drum, rhythmic bovines, and the savior of the world?  Not much.  A drummer boy hears of the birth of Jesus.  Somehow, he’s gotten it into his head, “our finest gifts we bring”.  Who told him this?  Has he met the wise men?  No.  Did he encounter a group of middle class Americans who said you can’t show up without a gift?  No.  He’s a first century child in Palestine.  Why would he have our social hang-ups and emotional baggage?

The little drummer boy wants to deliver this gift because he believes the way to honor Jesus is to place or “lay a gift before” him.  Again, where did he get this idea?  It’s certainly not Biblical.  Jesus never demands homage like Caesar, Herod, or some Persian King.   If you think this is Jesus:  YOU ARE WRONG!  How did we end up making the assumption that the “Messiah”, the anointed one was a king in the traditional sense?  Maybe we made it once, a long time ago.  After our first mistake, could we stop spreading the misinformation and singing songs about how ignorant we are concerning Jesus’ identity?

Not only is the theology royally screwed up, the music is repetitive and mind numbingly bad.  A new born King (a messiah), bring him gifts (which he doesn’t need or want), followed by pa rum pum pum pum. In case you missed his drum solo, let me do it again:  pa rum pum pum pum.  No variety, no musicianship whatsoever, just pum, pum, pum.  Excuse me if I’ am not taken to heights of Divine ecstasy.  The interminable chorus never seems to end.

The boy arrives at the manger and attempts to explain to the baby (God) why he doesn’t have a gift.  Why don’t we build the theological foundation for God and guilt?  Let’s teach the world, that from God’s entrance into the world, we have to appease God’s desire for things and stuff.  Let’s become our own worst enemy  by turning God into a reflection of our own self-interests and desires.  We, according to the song, need to give gifts fit for a Messiah.  News flash:  that is an impossible task.  No one can out give God!  You cannot match the gift of salvation.  You’re setting yourself up for failure, no matter cute your drumming sounds.  God doesn’t want our gifts.  God is more interested in our presence than our presents.   I’d like to say that message is somewhere buried beneath the ox dung and repetitive drumming but I can’t find it.

He won’t give up on the drum.  What is it with this kid and the drum?  He wants to play his drum for the baby Jesus.  How soothing is a drum for a newborn infant?  Did he consider this?  It may be his only gift but it’s wildly inappropriate for a baby.  The mother, Mary, probably in a desire to get rid of this kid says yes.  Play the drum, do what you came to do and leave.

Here’s where it gets weird.  I know the whole thing has been strange but this takes the cake.  “The ox and lamb kept time.”  Were they tapping their hooves, wearing Wayfarers, and wagging their tales?  Bovines have no sense of rhythm.  The little drummer boy wants his gift to be justified so much he sees two unbelievable things:  animals with rhythm and a baby’s smile in response to his drumming.  If I confused every time my dogs were exposed to music with expressions of rhythm, I’d be on Instagram.  The baby was so pleased the boy stopped playing an 18th century snare drum in 1st century Palestine he went pa rum pum pum poop; hence the smile.

The Little Drummer Boy is the worst Christmas song ever.  Unlike Chet Baker, it drives me further from God.  The theology is atrocious and the music is horrible.  On behalf of churches everywhere still playing this garbage, I apologize.

2017 is going to be a hard year.  We need to live our faith around the long game, which sees Advent as part of the larger expression of Christian faith.  Christmas isn’t the last gasp of emotional complacency in the waning days of December.  We need to be as close to God and each other as possible, without spiritual clutter blocking our access to God’s Good News.

Merry Christmas,

Richard Lowell Bryant

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Food for Thought-Christmas Looks Nothing at all Like the Hymns We Sing

Slide1 Christmas relies heavily on stereotypes. We have the stereotypical Santa, the stereotypical elf, and our well-worn images of the holy family in the manger. Chief among the Christmas stereotypes are the angels. The angels appear in white, winged, and sporting halos. In our more contemporary renditions of angelic glory, one usually finds a person in a bed sheet, wings that appear to be robbed from an over sized Muppet, and a halo created from pipe cleaners or clothes hangers. If we go one step further with our angelic imagery, the heavenly messengers might be playing harps. Where on Earth has this strange hodge-podge of faux togas and heavenly harps come? One culprit is the well-worn Christmas hymn, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”.

In the second line we read, “From angels bending near the Earth, to touch their harps of gold.” The angels bend “near” the Earth (never coming too close) to touch their harps of gold. They don’t want to come to close to Earth, only near enough to play these overpriced instruments in such a way that we, who live and dwell in the Christmas chaos may hear their joyous words. Here’s the thing. Edmund Sears, the man who wrote these words, was big on the world being solemn and still in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth. “The world in solemn stillness lay,” and the opening stanza, “it came upon a midnight clear,” all point to a world of total peace and tranquility. We got the impression of shepherds and others waiting for the cosmic pin to drop, so the real celebrations could rightly begin. How silent and still was a young woman going into labor? What were the sounds of Jesus’ cries, Mary’s pain, and Joseph’s worry? Could he have been more wrong? Unlikely, I say.

Has the hymn ever taken a long hard look at the reality of Christmas? It’s a cauldron of stress, fatigue, obligation, noise, and constant activity. In the way we lead our lives, there is nothing solemn or still about the modern American journey toward Christmas. Is this because we’ve taken the Christ out Christmas? No, it’s simply how we live 365 days a year. We are a culture which thrives on image over substance. Christmas is list of yearly traditions and manufactured obligations we’ve convinced ourselves must be done in order to have something we believe represents an ideal we’ve never really encountered. Christmas doesn’t look like the world presented in “It Came upon a Midnight Clear”. Hymn such as this tell the story of a sanitized world, a “Silent Night” which never existed. Their lyrics point us to staged recreations (sometimes in our minds and often in nativity scenes) of an event which looks nothing like the reality we claim to remember or want restored to our collective psyche. In a world full of turmoil, chaos, and pain we’ve sung ourselves into a complacency which fits our expectations and deepest desires. We meet a Jesus who will not challenge our complicity in the cultural marathon called Christmas (circa 2014). We encounter an infant who seems light years away from challenging our beliefs about the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the sick. We sit in church and sing words that don’t match the reality of Christmas because these songs are the weigh stations we use to measure how much Christmas resides in our souls.

I will sing “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” in church over the coming days. I will stand behind my pulpit; ask my congregation to turn to page 218 in the United Methodist Hymnal, and sing from verse 4, “The whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” In the back of my mind, I’ll be saying, “Yes, Lord, I want to send back this song and exchange it for a new one.” I want to send it back so we can sing of Christmas as it is not as someone wanted it to be. Is that the right thing to do or think? I don’t know. I’m an ordained United Methodist clergyperson and I’m not sure I know how to do Christmas “right”. I’m not certain what Christmas is supposed to look like. My guess, however, is that it doesn’t look like what we think we’re celebrating.