My personal introduction to the writings of G.K. Chesterton came through a common reading of The Everlasting Man by the members of the Theology Department back in the 1980s. I did not know it at the time, since I knew nothing of Chesterton’s corpus, but this text was spoken of by C.S. Lewis as the book that, as he put it, “baptized” his intellect. He later described this work as “the best popular defense of the full Christian position.”
As a work of apologetics, it is Chesterton's response to The Outline of History by H.G. Wells. For Wells, man is just another animal and Jesus is just another man. Charismatic leader though Jesus was, there is no more significance to His appearance on earth than that of any other well-known figure from history. Chesterton takes issue with Wells’s vision, pointing out that if man is simply another animal then he is a very peculiar animal, and, more importantly, if Jesus is just another religious leader then He is a very strange leader of a uniquely off-beat religion.
At the beginning of Part II of The Everlasting Man, Chesterton proposes that just as mankind started as a caveman, so does this unique man, Jesus, begin His existence in a cave - a stable hewn from the rock near Bethlehem. Yet, this Cave-Man is unique among all previous or future men in that once one has been told His story one has embedded for all time in one’s psyche the association of “two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other: the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars.”
As Chesterton points out, there is absolutely nothing in the vision of a baby in a stable that should ever remind us of the omnipotence of God. “It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten,” is how Chesterton put it. It makes no logical sense, but - even beyond making theological sense - it makes psychological sense. No person who as a child had been told the story of the birth of Jesus could ever separate the baby from the divine. No one who has any passing familiarity with Mary, the Mother of God, can see a painting of a mother and a baby and not assume - without even making a conscious effort to do so - that it is a Madonna and Child.
Images have the capacity to move us in ways that we can’t often understand, and the earlier those images are embedded in our psyches the more of an impression they continue to make long after their context is forgotten. This appears to be why in a world where the Christian Faith no longer holds sway, Christmas still matters. Christmas movies and television specials play with the emotions of the audience knowing that those particular heart-strings are easy to pull. The common human chords of peace, hope, love, family, reconciliation, and joy all find their way into everything from A Christmas Carol to whatever sappy movie is on Lifetime during December.
Because of our almost impenetrable psychological attachment to the story of Christmas we seemingly don’t even need Jesus to appear in any way for a Christmas movie to be a Christmas movie. As my great colleague Paul Prokop, author and illustrator of The True Story of Santa Claus, said as we were discussing the lack of Jesus in Christmas movies: all you need is a nice story set in December and it’s a Christmas movie.
He’s totally correct, and the reason why is because of our association - a totally non-logical association - of Christmas with things like peace, hope, love, family, reconciliation, and joy. Throw in an angel - as in It’s a Wonderful Life - and you’ve got a Christmas classic.
In some very important ways this is obviously not the ideal situation. A Charlie Brown Christmas should, in a perfect world, be the norm rather than the exception, yet the proliferation of so many of what I like to call “Christmas time” movies actually helps to prove Chesterton’s point. Despite the fact that most of the world agrees with H.G. Wells, and sees Jesus as just another good guy, we just can’t get over Him. Christians, non-Christians, atheists all give Christmas presents, have Christmas dinners, and watch Christmas movies.
Maybe it is because we have been psychologically manipulated to do so - maybe it is the con-men of Madison Avenue who are pushing all of the good Christmassey feelings in order to drive the economy. Or maybe it is because, as Chesterton believed, this Child was not just another baby who would grow up to be a popular leader, but God Incarnate. Maybe all of us, at the core of our being, want this to be true and are by our very nature desirous of peace, hope, love, family, reconciliation, and joy. And maybe this God Who lies in the manger loves us so much that He not only became one of us, but gives us the chance to find Him, as if hidden in a cave, in any nice story set in December.