50 Weeks to Christmas: Get Reading!
It is the Twelfth Day of Christmas. Returning back to Christmas again will take most of a year. How should we spend that year? Linus bids us learn “the true meaning of Christmas.” Good idea! I have a suggestion to add to it. Before the next Yule log rolls by, grab a few good books, and grapple with the historical significance of that first Christmas morn.
Here are five books or sets of books I recommend to give you something to talk about with Saint Nick on his next fly-by, or with friends who “learned” in school that “O Holy Night” in the “Little Town of Bethlehem” didn’t do the world much good.
The Virtuous Sir Gawain
Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. I only recently discovered this poem about two knights, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation. The story is musical, pious, lovely, deeply bizarre, yet symmetrically-framed, supplying what Medieval chivalry needed, to save it from its own adulterous desires. (And us, from ours.)
You think Die Hard belongs in the Christmas canon? Try this. The story begins at Christmas, then culminates the next Christmas season with a bizarre duel (the first New Year’s bowl game, perhaps). The Incredible Hulk’s more clever great-great grandfather, a mysterious, giant knight dressed all in green, visits King Arthur’s court just as the Knights of the Round Table have finished their Christmas feast. They’re in the mood for entertainment.
The Green Knight issues a challenge. (This is not your normal Christmas game.) “Grab this axe,” he says, “and take one chop at my head with it. Then in a year and a day, come visit my house, and I’ll return the blow — if any of you ‘noble knights’ dares chance my pleasant game!”
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Sir Gawain restrains his uncle the king and picks up the axe himself. He does the deed with a single blow. Unimpaired, the visitor picks up his severed noggin, and says, “See you in a year and a day!” He exits the castle, leaving behind open jaws all around. Thus does the trial of Sir Gawain begin, leading to monsters, sure death, and a beautiful lady, who of course is not quite what she appears.
The story is told in beautiful, flowing alliteration. (You’ll find in Tolkien’s version words like “barrow” that come up later in his writings.) It is fun without failing to be profound. Sir Gawain wears a “pentangle” that represents five virtues: generosity, chastity, courtesy, friendship, and Christian piety.
On the second Christmas Gawain visits a palace and meets a beautiful lady. There his Christian piety and chastity challenge Medieval courtesy and friendliness, and the courtly religion of genteel adultery. The poem sets the best of Medieval civilization in gorgeous color, even while standing as a bold yet courteous challenge to the adulterous Spirit of that Age. And of our own.
Like the gorgeous cathedrals that began to rise across Europe about the same time, this poem sets a melody of quirkiness to a symmetrical beat. It shows us that the highest heroism must be restrained by the love of God. Our castles would be happier if we followed Sir Gawain’s example.
Going Deeper in Faith
The great sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark, passed away in 2022. He told me once how in essence, he wrote himself back to faith: “As I comprehended more, it became more and more plausible and likely, and here I am.” Begin with The Rise of Christianity. To go deeper, try Discovering God or For the Glory of God. Chapters in the latter on how Christianity ended slavery and inspired modern science make excellent pre-Christmas reading: “Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother!”
The Rebirth of Science and Faith
For how the Gospel helped midwife the rebirth of science, read James Hannam’s The Genesis of Science. Allan Chapman, the Oxford historian of science, debunked common related errors in Slaying the Dragons: Destroying Myths in the History of Science and Faith.
The Birth of Jesus Transformed the Non-Christian World As Well
Discover how the birth of Jesus transformed the non-Christian world as well. Philosopher and story-teller Vishal Mangalwadi shows how Christianity transformed India. You might begin with the book he co-wrote with his wife, Ruth on the great missionary William Carey.
To see what “Mary’s Boy Child Jesus Christ” has done for some smaller tribes, try the late and much-missed Don Richardson’s Peace Child, or his amazing Lords of the Earth.
Jesus and Education — A Foundational Teacher
Finally, learn about the role Christ has played in education. If nothing else, Christmas gives children and their teachers a welcome break from class! But the babe born in Bethlehem also became one of the world’s foundational teachers.
With Critical Theory and other harmful ideologies now dominating American education, we need those foundations laid anew. Vishal Mangalwadi asked me to co-edit a book on the role Christ has and should play in education. With contributors from around the world, in The Third Education Revolution, we argued that followers of Jesus should reclaim our children’s future, setting truth at the heart of a holistic, life-affirming education. The book is a bit of a bear, admittedly. Feel free to skim and skip.
While You Wait …
So that’s my “pentangle” of suggestions for fortifying your knightly virtues and preparing for the next Christmas. Will you meet the Green Knight? Or Saint Nick? Either way, understanding more of what “Mary’s Boy Child, Jesus Christ” has done for us will renew your verve for singing classic Christmas carols while you wait:
A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Then share milk and cookies with Santa, the Green Knight, or whoever shows up.
David Marshall, an educator and writer, has a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is The Case for Aslan: Evidence for Jesus in the Land of Narnia.