Friday, December 24, 2010

Tall tales

To invoke the situational perspective maybe it's a matter of background. I was just listening to a radio broadcast from Omaha (one of the places where I grew up) from a secular sports-talk station. The conversation turned to a football player playing Santa. The hosts implied that the NFL star wasn't really Santa at all and that there wasn't any such thing. Callers and emailers contacted the show immediately to remonstrate with the hosts and to more or less force them to confess the Santa orthodoxy. It was a forced confession of faith at the point of a metaphorical sword. The inquisitors would have been proud. People of N. European descent take the Santa myth/lie very seriously.

I agree with you that the callers/emailers got carried away. They are too deeply invested in the Santa myth. In fairness, that’s because they don’t wish to spoil it for kids.

In my original post I did clearly distinguish between myths that are conventional and understood as such by both the teller and the hearer and myths that are enforced culturally and socially and even religiously as a kind of orthodoxy. Why doesn't that count as discrimination?

But that’s simplistic. The word “lie” carries an odious connotation. As such, the word should be reserved for truly odious conduct. One needs to draw some elementary distinctions between different kinds of “lies,” viz. white “lies,” jocose “lies,” or injurious lies.

I'm a little surprised at your language re moralizing? I thought that theology is application and that moralizing was a good thing? When did moralizing become problematic? How? Why?

I didn’t say moralizing was problematic. This is what I said: “If you're going to moralize, then you need to be morally discriminating. Draw rudimentary distinctions.  You might as well say certain pranks and practical jokes are "lies." But that trivializes the ethical connotations of lying.”

Let’s take some concrete examples:

In 2 Sam 12, Nathan must confront the sin of David. But for two reasons, that’s a tricky operation. For one thing, it can be hazardous for a social inferior to challenge the king. For the king may execute his critic.

In addition, if Nathan challenges Dave directly, that will simply put David on the defensive, which would be counterproductive.

So Nathan resorts to subterfuge. He tells a disguised parable. This stratagem has two advantages: It will catch David with his guard down. It will trick David into condemning himself.

For the parable to succeed, David must be initially taken in by the parable. He must be temporarily misled into believing this is a true story. Having drawn him in, Nathan can then deliver the punch line.

The intention to deceive the listener is a necessary condition of the ruse. But you presumably believe the prophet Nathan was justified in his tactics.

Take another example: the tall tale. This is a humorous, fictitious literary or folkloric genre. The humorous element depends on the contrast between the deadpan tone of the narrator and the mounting absurdity of the narrative.

It is most effective when the audience is initially taken in by the tale. The narrator adopts a dry, matter-of-fact tone. He acts as if this is a true story. The story progresses from realism to surrealism. That’s the point at which it dawns on the audience that this is all an elaborate hoax. The humorous effect crucially lies in the fact that this is told with a straight face, as well as the initial verisimilitude, which is just a set-up for the punch line.

Seems to me that the Santa myth falls into the same basic genre as tall tales and practical jokes. I suppose we could classify all these things are “elaborate lies” (your phrase), but that blurs important moral distinctions.

Again, we can have a debate about when this material crosses the line. But to slap the “lie” label on something like this doesn’t conduce to a useful analysis of the salient moral considerations. 


  1. Steve,

    The essence of a lie is the intent to deceive. Your argument seems to be that so long as the intent to deceive is for a good purpose (e.g., Santa) it's not a lie. Neither the Westminster Larger Catechism nor the Heidelberg Catechism address Santa under the heading of the ninth commandment but I think "intent to deceive" is prohibited generally under the ninth commandment.

    There are times when lying may be necessary (although Mr Murray, as I recall, did not think so). I think of Rahab as an example. Mr Murray notes that she's not honored for her lie but if she hadn't lied we wouldn't know about her. But it seems like a stretch to equate the Santa myth with Rahab's lie if only because Santa is a myth and Rahab was defending the life of righteous, flesh and blood humans.

    I doubt the whole project of defending the Santa myth as a way of defending the Christian faith. Our faith is grounded in facts and history. Paul says that the risen Jesus was seen by 500. He was seen and touched by disciples and apostles.

    The story, such as we know it, of the real figure behind the Santa myth is one thing but the Santa myth which people tell their children is something different. It's not historical. It's not factual. It's not true. Further, it's grounded in a terrible theology of rewards!

    Isn't this the difference between an understood convention and a lie that really brings disenchantment? Sometimes there is no harm when children learn that the Santa story is a lie but sometimes there is real harm. Sometimes it does create mistrust. Parents play a central role in the catechizing of children. When an "enchanted" child become disenchanted he can also become bitter and cynical. There's a real pedagogical issue here for parents who want to communicate the truth to their children. Should they risk the danger of cynicism for the sake of lying to their children about the Santa myth? Why? What's the pay off?

  2. I'm thankful for this ongoing discussion and debate. My daughter who is now 9 years-old still believes that Santa Claus exists. My wife and I had a ferocious debate 6-7 years ago about this. I took the side of Heidelblog and my wife said it's harmless and don't you dare tell her that there's no Santa. I didn't like it at all, but Ephesians 5 mutual submission and all, I let her have her way.

    Now I'm trying to figure out how to let my daughter know there's no Santa Claus without her wondering whether my wife has told her any other "tall tales."

    P.S. Sara would ask me about Santa and I'd tell her to go talk to mom. I could never carry out my part in perpetuating the Santa myth. It just felt horrible to my soul.