My son and a group of his friends got together a few days ago and marked the start of the holiday season with a “hate-watch” marathon of Hallmark Channel Christmas movies. I was genuinely torn when I heard about their plans for the evening. On the one hand, I could kind of relate. I first encountered the Hallmark Channel through my father, the most tender-hearted human I’ve ever known. For the last decade or so of his life, Dad spent each free evening seated at a card table, his attention equally divided between whatever jigsaw puzzle he was working on and whatever movie was playing on the Hallmark Channel. Each touching ending, each improbable-yet-predictable reunion, each romantic resolution would prompt another rush of happy tears from Dad. For my part, when I visited Mom and Dad I spent the evenings wandering in and out of the family room, shaking my head, rolling my eyes, and growing increasingly disgusted with the nightly line-up of cheesy, sentimental TV drivel. So my son came by his impulse to hate-watch honestly.
On the other hand: particularly now that Dad has gone, I feel slightly defensive for him. I feel sentimental about his sentimentality, and there is a permanent tender spot in my heart for all the ways he was tender-hearted. Maybe I’m just never satisfied. Dad’s fondness for Hallmark bothered me because it seemed kind of sappy and mawkish. My son’s mockery of Hallmark bothers me because it feels a little bit cynical and sneering.
Believe it or not, I’ve been ruminating on all of this for the last week or so as I’ve been thinking about Advent—this time of waiting—and the theme of joy. The Hallmark Channel has been wildly successful at packaging and presenting a particular brand of Christmas joy. Their holiday movies offer a festive and upbeat vision of the season that many (like my dad) find tremendously appealing, and that many others (like my son) find slightly ridiculous. And so I’ve found myself teetering back and forth between my father and my son, and thinking about the specific character of the Joy we celebrate at Advent. Josef Pieper, a 20th century German Catholic philosopher, has been helping to shape and direct my thinking. (Of special interest to Rabbit Room-ers: Pieper was also an admirer of C. S. Lewis, and translated some of Lewis’s writings into German.) Pieper writes:
The reason for joy, although it may be encountered in a thousand concrete forms, is always the same: possessing or receiving what one loves, whether actually in the present, hoped for in the future, or remembered in the past. Joy is an expression of love. One who loves nothing and nobody cannot possibly rejoice, no matter how desperately he craves joy. Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves.—In Tune With the World: A Theory of Festivity, 23
Receiving What We Love
Of the various criticisms of Hallmark Channel movies, two are the most prominent. First, they are predictable. The two leads who can hardly stand each other in the first scene will fall in love by the final commercial break. The high-powered executive stranded in the quaint small town will discover the true meaning of Christmas, and that there are some things more important than money and the executive suite. And so on. Looking out from the opening scene, we already have a clear and unimpeded view of the conclusion. Here is the second critique: the movies aren’t just predictable; they also predictably end “happily ever after.” However many dilemmas, obstacles, difficult backstories, and personality clashes the characters may traverse, we can be confident at the outset that after 90-odd minutes, all will be well in the world. The movies are, for that reason (this second criticism runs), completely unrealistic. “Life’s just not like that,” we complain. “That’s not how things work—where everyone ends up happy, misunderstandings are all cleared up, and everything works out the way it should.” (There are other criticisms or course—mediocre acting, for instance, and uninspired writing. Leave those to the side for a moment.)
I once asked Dad about all of this.
“Why do you like watching these things so much, Dad? Five minutes in, you already know exactly how the whole thing is going to turn out.”
“That’s what I like,” Dad said with a smile. “I’m a simple guy. I like happy endings.”
At least at one level there is a correspondence between what Pieper says about joy and what my Dad liked about Hallmark. “The reason for joy” Pieper writes, “is . . . possessing or receiving what one loves, whether actually in the present, hoped for in the future, or remembered in the past.” Joy, in other words, isn’t just a matter of thinking happy thoughts, or “looking on the sunny side.” We rejoice when we “possess or receive” what we love (whether, as Pieper points out, we receive it actually in the present, as a remembered past event, or as a future certainty). Because the ending is certain, the promised joy is possessed even now. And so Dad could chuckle when the protagonist storms out on her Hallmark love interest sixty minutes into the exposition of their romance. We know that what would be distressing or even tragic considered on its own, is actually only an interesting wrinkle in the unfolding romance. Assured of the outcome, we can experience difficulties and complications—even as they arise—as what they will one day be: simply interesting bends in the roads; endearing anecdotes the characters will share years from now at anniversary celebrations. (“Haha! Yes! Your mother actually threw the flowers right in my face, and screamed: ‘I never want to see you again!’”)
The word “advent” is from the Latin “advenire”—to come or to arrive. In that sense we could even go so far to say that my Dad’s enjoyment of Hallmark movies had a kind of “advent character” to it. He enjoyed every minute of his evening at the card table, because he knew what was coming.
A Christianity that has forgotten how to lament is damaged; a Christianity that has forgotten how to celebrate is dead.Steve Guthrie
Joy functions in this advent-like way throughout the scriptures. Faithful people are able to endure or even rejoice in the midst of sufferings, because the joyful outcome is certain. So we read that “Jesus, for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame.” (Heb. 12:2) Likewise, though there were fights and disagreements among the Christians in Philippi, still Paul could write: “ In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy . . . being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:4,6) Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves. Because we will receive what God has promised, because the outcome is beyond doubt, we experience even now the joy that accompanies the fulfillment of the promise. “Though you have not seen [Jesus],” Peter writes, “you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the end result of your faith.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)
This is also the point at which the Hallmark Channel movies run up hard against the second critique mentioned above: life just doesn’t give us these kinds of “happily ever after” endings, we say. We can’t in fact be certain that we will receive any of the things that the Christmas movies promise us: irreproachably good marriages, immaculately happy families, and a deeply meaningful Christmas Eve spent in a charming, snow-fringed New England cottage. We mostly do not experience the sort of airbrushed perfection presented here. We know too that even the loveliest wreaths will fade. We may also think of the billions of poor in our world who could never hope to afford—or even dream of visiting—the delightful farmhouse in Upstate New York featured in the closing shot; with hardwood floors, and Pottery Barn furniture arranged tastefully around the stone fireplace. So if joy is “receiving or possessing” the thing we love, then the Hallmark movies offer us a false joy. Not because they offer us goods unworthy of our love, but because the goods they offer cannot be possessed: reliably, or permanently, or equitably.
Adjourning the Chambers of Pessimism
Having said all of that, I still don’t feel any better when I think of my son and his friends, laughing at the latest round of offerings from Hallmark and Co. I feel sad, in fact. My sweet, tender-hearted father exits stage left, and enter then the Hate Watchers; enter then the skeptics and the brutal realists; enter the sneering dismissal, and the sarcastic two-word review available to every sixth-grader: Yeah, right! This doesn’t seem like any sort of improvement. Gullibility may not be one of the fruit of the Spirit, but neither is cynicism.
This is in fact an issue of profound importance at this particular cultural moment. Over the last several months our nation has had to confront extraordinary challenges and sorrows: a pandemic; racial tensions; protests; a brutally contentious election; claims of fraud; threats of civil war. The question I’m interested in here is not what we should do, but how we should be. What sort of disposition, what sort of outlook, and demeanor should we have?
We might retreat into cheery indifference. Things aren’t that bad—everything will be fine. Please don’t disrupt my happily ever after; my hot chocolate is getting cold.
Conversely we might descend into bitterness and despair. Things are hopeless—there’s no way to fix this. There are no happily ever afters.
They are both soul-destroying responses. A Christianity that has forgotten how to lament is damaged; a Christianity that has forgotten how to celebrate is dead. “Christianity is a unique religion of joy,” writes theologian Jürgen Moltmann. And Martin Luther King, Jr., at a time when there was little reason for optimism, likewise insisted:
The dawn will come. Disappointment, sorrow, and despair are born at midnight, but morning follows. “Weeping may endure for a night” the psalmist writes “but joy cometh in the morning.” This faith adjourns the assemblies of hopelessness and brings new light into the dark chambers of pessimism.—“A Knock at Midnight”
When we rejoice, we put the forces of terror and destruction on notice: your days are numbered.Steve Guthrie
And so, at the very moment I am rolling my eyes at another sweater-wearing single dad with perfect teeth, I also want to argue in defense of happy endings. At the very least, I want to push back against a more general mistrust of such. Ernest Hemmingway wrote that “all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.” (Death in the Afternoon) Of course Hemmingway is right. Who could argue with that? And yet, it seems that the Christian must. The one Really True Story—the truest story, which is the plumb-line of every other story, does in fact have a happy ending. The world’s ending is a comedy, not a tragedy.
What does that mean? It doesn’t undo the little happinesses and joys of Hallmark. Instead it underwrites and redeems them. It doesn’t so much expose these little paradises as a lie; rather it welcomes them in to the truth to which they are clumsily gesturing. An Advent Joy is wildly inclusive. In good times it says: “This lovely moment is an icon of the loveliness that will one day enfold all of creation.” It says, “This little family get-together, with all of its quirks and eccentricities, is a sacrament of the reconciliation of all people and all things that God is surely bringing about.” In this time of waiting (Advent) I am experiencing now a little bit of what is coming.
Neither on the other hand does Advent Joy ignore the suffering of the world. In fact, to celebrate “Advent” is necessarily to insist on both the ultimate arrival of Joy and the present persistence of disappointment. If we say that the fullness of Joy is coming (advenire), then we likewise acknowledge that it is not here. (“Who hopes for what they already have?” Paul asks. (Rom. 8:24)) Advent Joy does not deny the world’s sorrow. Rather, it insists that sorrow is not the last word.
“I see the injustice,” it says, “and yet justice will be done.”
“I see the brokenness,” it acknowledges, “and yet there will be healing.”
“I see the division and anger. And yet at the last day there will be love and community.”
This kind of joy is profoundly countercultural. It is an act of winsome rebellion against the powers and authorities of this present evil age. “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” When we rejoice, we put the forces of terror and destruction on notice: your days are numbered.
My dad’s fondness for Hallmark, I said earlier, struck me as sentimental. And my son’s disdain, I said, seems cynical. But on further reflection, I think that maybe those assessments are too one-sided. I think my son probably laughs at Hallmark Christmas because he believes things are a lot more broken than they are portrayed in the movies. And I think my father probably wept at Hallmark Christmas because he believed things are more hopeful and beautiful than they are portrayed on the nightly news.
They both are right; and in this season it is right for us to join them both; weeping and laughing with Advent Joy.
Dr. Steve Guthrie is Professor of Theology at Belmont University, a Rabbit Room board member and Hutchmoot speaker, and also was for many years a member of a Beatles cover band (which we don't hold against him).