Have you seen the movie Talladega Nights? It has a dinner scene in which the stock car driver Ricky Bobby, played by Will Ferrell, says grace. He gives thanks to God for the food his family is about to enjoy. (KFC and Dominos and “the always delicious Taco Bell” must have paid big bucks for product placement in the movie!) Ricky’s prayer, which he directs to “tiny baby Jesus” is interrupted by his wife.
Carley is annoyed because Ricky only looks to Jesus as the baby in the manger. Her father agrees. He says, “He grew up. He had a beard!”
Ricky insists the fragile infant is the Jesus he likes. This leads to others around the table describing how they like to imagine Jesus. These preferences include Jesus as a Lynyrd Skynyrd style southern rocker, a party guy in a tuxedo T-shirt and a sword-wielding samurai who defeats a swarm of evil ninjas.
It’s my favourite scene in the movie. The supper table conversation uses humour to open a very interesting theological debate.
How do we think about God? This is about more than what we imagine God looks like or what God would wear. It’s also about how we see God at work in our world, how we connect to God, and our role in the relationship between God and humans.
I think, especially at this time of year, some folks imagine God as a bit like Santa. Santa keeps those famous lists of who’s been nice and who’s been naughty. God is up there in the sky instead of the North Pole, but equally far away, and basically inapproachable, except by letters, or carefully worded prayers.
The story we grow up with tells us Santa is magical, has limitless resources and brigades of elves that can make anything. (Actually, wasn’t Will Farell one of them?) This all-powerful Santa could, in theory, give every child everything they need or want.
So why doesn’t he? Is it because we get what we deserve? (We could ask the same question of an all-powerful God.)
We might imagine the hard things that happen in our lives are the real-life version of lumps of coal in our stockings.
That’s the part of the Santa story I find disturbing. I would not want a child to think the lack of presents under the tree was a sign Santa judged them unworthy. It’s not the kid’s fault when a family struggles financially or when one or both parents simply don’t have their act together.
Part of why Carley Bobby is concerned about “which” Jesus Ricky prays to is she wants him to get his prayer exactly right, so God will help him win the upcoming race and jumpstart his failing career. It sounds like her God is a lot like a judgy Santa who gives or withhold presents, or blessings, on a whim.
A lot of folks I know grew up with an image of a scary God, who really does keep a naughty list, and likely checks it more than twice. They fear God, and not in a good way.
But what if Ricky Bobby has it right? What if it’s OK to think about God as the tiny babe in the manger? I can think of at least three good things about that.
The first is that tiny baby Jesus is not all-powerful. There are limits to what he can do. He can’t change the weather, he can’t make poor people rich and he can’t make mean people be nice. (He also can’t influence the outcome of NASCAR races.)
The second is that he is vulnerable. The fact that he needs help makes him so much more like you and I, than Santa with his magic. Santa can do anything and needs nothing from us. Little babies require help with almost everything. Each of us understands what that’s like.
The third is that seeing a baby that can’t survive or thrive without help may not transform a mean person into a nice person, but for most of us, it makes us want to be kind. The fragility, the neediness of the little one connects us to our own compassion. We respond from the part of us that knows what it’s like to be in need.
Little Baby Jesus is a beautiful “en-fleshing,” (the old word is Incarnation) of the God who invites us into a relationship in which we have responsibilities. We are called to be compassionate, to be helpful, and to work towards a world in which all the children know they are loved and held precious, like that little babe in Bethlehem.
Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.