Westminster Abbey Adds Hindu Snowmen

Dave at Big Circumstances points to an article in Christian Today that gives a scene almost reminiscent of those kitsch manger displays with Santa Claus suddenly thrust into the nativity/crèche scene, bowing down to the manger. Westminster Abbey in London, site of the coronation of every crowned king or queen of England since William the Conqueror (11th C.), has added Hindu Snowmen, a Jewish Temple, and a Chinese Dragon to the nativity scene. I didn’t even know the Hindu had snowmen.

Dave asks, ‘What are they playing at?’ I have to ask the same thing. What does this message say if we simply include other characters in the front of our churches? During the whole stamp controversy, I asked what does it mean by putting Jesus on a stamp as some spokesman for the government. How does the presence of snowmen and dragons affect to the message of Christmas? According to the article, the canons at Westminster want it to be a message of peace and good will toward all people.

But, the message of peace and good will is the particularity of the birth of Jesus and the whole Christmas story (I would include the birth of John the Baptist in this as well).  Yes, the birth is a sign that God will bring peace, but the birth with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is the way in which God has chosen to bring this about. The angels promise peace and good will is because of what happened in Bethlehem, not expressing a general wish that peace and good will can come and oh we have this baby born as a sign that maybe this wish will come true. For Christians, snowmen and dragons are not the cause of peace. They distract from the message.

This has often been called the ‘scandal of particularity’ of the Christian message. I join those who put the snowmen and dragon on the lawn of the Abbey in their hope for peace and good will to all people, but I see this as less a general hope. The hope offered is the one who has been born. God acted decisively in human history by taking on flesh and becoming one of us to reconcile us to God. That will continue to play out in human history as Jesus’ disciples continue the work Jesus did as he grew up. This would include intentional dialogue with those of other faiths, but not blurring the distinctions between us.

Two other thoughts: I wonder what those of other faiths think of us just taking their symbols and crashing them with ours? Perhaps they are OK with it. Perhaps they don’t share the mixing of symbols that the Abbey staff believe to be a no-brainer. But it usually seems to be Christians who do this – pick up some symbols of other faiths and throw them with ours as acts of unity. (I would really like to hear about these Hindu snowmen – I usually associate Hinduism with India, a country I do not associate with snow at all. Maybe this is more my ignorance, though).

My other thought concerns the Abbey itself. It’s more national shrine that church. Do I see them speaking for Christianity anyway? It’s one of my favourite London tourist attractions – and it is that: a tourist attraction. It’s known more for it’s connection to the coronations and the monarchy than it’s religious aspects. So, on another side, I’m really not bothered what the Abbey does. It would concern me more if Westminster’s Methodist Central Hall (across the street) did this.

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9 thoughts on “Westminster Abbey Adds Hindu Snowmen

  1. I remember visiting the Abbey in high school on a trip from my home in California. I spent about three weeks in Europe, and we visited many of the old churches.

    Your story reminds of what is going in America over the symbolism of Rick Warren as Obama’s pick to give the invocation at the inaguration in January. Warren isn’t a bad guy (necessarily), but he represents something to many gay activists that they hate because of what he symbolizes.

    Symbols are interesting to me because they sometimes are much powerful that people originally think. If you read Tony Jone’s blog on Rick Warren, I think he is right that Obama probably underestimated how much of an uproar would occur over Warren. You can see the link here:

    http://blog.beliefnet.com/tonyjones/2008/12/rick-warrens-long-cycle.html

    As far as the Abbey is concerned, I think that it’s just weird to put all of these other characters as part of the Nativity. It really has no symbolic meaning other than some kind of “general” peace which has nothing to do with Christianity. In actuality, ironically, means nothing because it takes away the particularity of Christianity and these other religions combined with Christianity takes away the particularity of those religions as well. They are trying to say something, but end up saying nothing.

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  3. Dan, thanks for stopping by. I think you are right in what you say about what symbols say. I also wonder whether or not Obama knew the subsequent furore it would cause. But I think he would still make the choice again.

    I agree with you that the statement basically says nothing. It was meant to be a gesture of some kind that at the end doesn’t hit the mark.

  4. Hi Will,
    Yes, I agree that Obama would still make the same decision. He is a politician and Rick Warren scores points with evangelicals. We’ll see what happens over here.

  5. I’m just now seeing this.

    Fascinating.

    There’s an Episcopal church in Asheville, NC, that my wife and I stop in on occasion when we’re up there. They have a little tract display made of wood. Carved in the top of it are the symbols of various world religions.

    I understand it is seemingly “progressive” to shirk off the supposed “crudities” of the scandal of particularity, but I have never once felt the appeal of doing so.

    I have always rather enjoyed being a bit of a cultural iconoclast on this point: the claims of the gospel do not seem to me to admit of some nebulous melting-pot hodge-podge of whatever for whomever. The faith seems to me to have a very particular content that necessarily conflicts with contrastic contents asserting propostitions diametrically and logically opposed to its own content.

    Which is to say that the scandal of particularity is a scandal for the simple fact that it is true.

    I’m in a talkative mood tonight, apparently! 🙂

    Wyman

  6. Thanks, Wyman. I agree with you – we want to pretend the details are incidentals and don’t mean anything (just another ‘expression’ of the same thing).

    Glad you’re feeling talkative!

  7. I think everyone being so bothered about this is a little weird. Jesus was very specific in saying, those who are different, should be welcomed, you should do as they do. If people are vegetarian to help their faith, accomodate their conscience. Personally, if you look at Christ’s message, I think he says you should worship in a way that is true to your heart whilst remaining true to the Bible. God doesn’t say do not give gifts, but he says do not worry about money and to give to the needy. God does not say “celebrate Christmas” he says LOVE God with all your heart and soul and all your strength (and Love others as yourself) Jesus taught us to break bread with sinners and tax-collectors and those who society sees as undesirable. Perhaps you are confusing ‘political correctness’ with Biblical integrity. These clergymen have the latter. Where does the Bible say Snowmen are anything to do with Christmas? Why shouldn’t a culturally-Hindu Englishwoman be celebrated in a beautiful Winter tableau as a snowman? To say anything that is “anglo-saxon Christmas” isn’t Christian is a bit sickening, and borderline BNP-fringe type thoughts in my opinion. We should all be putting up Palm-trees, laying incense in a stable and making a pilgrimage to the Middle-east if we must observe any historical traditions. Modern Christians MUST learn to seperate their Christ-following from their socio-cultural contextul surroundings. Otherwise, we risk the very foundations of our faith. First: Love God! Remember the sabbath, dedicate your rest-day to God. Honour your parents. Love others as yourself. Obey the law. What more is there?

  8. Hello Coralie, and thank you for stopping by. Obviously, you and I have some disagreements, though I doubt that because I disagree with you that should put me in the BNP camp. In fact your statement that I border on it seems to disrupt your point that we should all be loving each other. Your tactic, though I am sure you mean as cautionary, can become quite antagonising rather than the hope for civil discourse I am sure you want.

    I did express my wish for peace for all people, and I asked if the abbey was being considerate of the other religions by throwing their symbols in with ours. Mixing of symbols clouds any message, and pretending they are all the same doesn’t do justice to anyone.

    To your objections, I return to the ‘scandal of particularity’ that I mention. God has acted in this world through this baby that grew up and died and rose again. It is good news for all people, but it is the good news that came through that child born, and not any general hope for peace that thinks, ‘Well, maybe this will all work out.’ Yes, Jesus called us to love, and he broke the curse of hate through his death and resurrection.

    Toward the end of your comment, you give some mighty strong statements that you seem to believe are self-evident, but actually all needs unpacking. Which God? Which law? How have your own socio-cultural contexts affected how you define each of those?

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