The globe and the gourd: Christianity in a global world

December 14, 2009 | 9 comments
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Photo courtesy of Ben Munson

All photos courtesy of Ben Munson

It’s a small object, not a simple one: a Peruvian nativity carving, fashioned inside a gourd from intricate wood figures painted in bright colors. It was on display at the creche festival last weekend; I lingered over it for a moment, pointed out the tiny llama to my children, and moved on long before its meaning had bloomed. The object is a simple commemoration of Jesus’ birth, that much we read on its surface. But it’s also a tale of the complex intersection of Christianity and globalization in the modern world.

Any powerful set of ideas will make several curtain calls in the long drama of history. Christianity has taken the stage in the company of an empire or two, conflicts both local and far-flung, and migrations and social movements of all sorts. In our current scene, Christianity is one of the ideological actors competing to explain and direct an accelerating pageant of globalizing geopolitics.

In a sense, Christianity has been waiting for this historical moment for centuries. Globalization promises a technological marvel: a world of regional economies and societies finally and fully integrated by a globe-girding network of communication and exchange. Expanding global markets, physical infrastructure, and networked electronic media make the peoples of the world more available to one another now than they have ever been. But as a technological process, globalization is sorely inadequate to meet its own grand promise: technology needs narrative to interpret and integrate its meaning into our lived experience. Christianity, and its monotheistic sister religions, provide one narrative, a family story, for understanding the relatedness of humanity in a global age.

LDS-Creches-09-12030524We share one God; God is our father and so we are brothers and sisters; God gave his Son to save all mankind; the good news of Jesus’s gospel is for all the world. This has always been Christianity’s message to the world, and today it speaks to the conflicts and opportunities of this latest stage of human history. It’s all there in the Peruvian nativity, if you look. Global migration and trade offered the image of the infant Jesus to Peru, clothed it in wood, and then offered the wooden object back to North America. In turn the object offers up the meaning of the global trade and travel that produced it, the world in a gourd, the cosmos in the microcosm: the babe in Bethlehem, born a child and yet a king, orients all of heaven and earth together toward the divine logos. Word made flesh, flesh made wood.

It’s not quite as neat as that, of course. Christianity is not a monolith, and different Christian traditions have their own versions of Christian universalism. Those propositional basics of Christianity are not self-interpreting, nor is it obvious that they call for a pro-global worldview; indeed, Christianity has also been used to argue against globalization in favor of localism. Christianity was born in a premodern world—in fact, the very notion of the “blue marble” that has come to symbolize the one-world aspect of globalism was unknown to the authors of the Bible—and it sometimes marries uneasily with the Enlightenment world system of which globalization is a descendant. Still, the ideas are there, they are relevant, and they are being used, one way or another.

There’s a mid-century Christmas carol that was a favorite of mine as a child, and I still love it. Alfred Burt’s “Some Children See Him,” the lyric written by Wihla Hutson, reflects its 1951 vintage in a few descriptive terms that might make us wince a bit today. But its message is as sweet as ever. It’s the message borne by the Peruvian nativity, displayed together with creches from every other corner of the world: Jesus came for all, and we adore him as one.

LDS-Creches-09-12030649 Some children see Him lily white,
the baby Jesus born this night.
Some children see Him lily white,
with tresses soft and fair.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
The Lord of heav’n to earth come down.
Some children see Him bronzed and brown,
with dark and heavy hair.

Some children see Him almond-eyed,
this Savior whom we kneel beside.
some children see Him almond-eyed,
with skin of yellow hue.
Some children see Him dark as they,
sweet Mary’s Son to whom we pray.
Some children see him dark as they,
and, ah! they love Him, too!

The children in each different place
will see the baby Jesus’ face
like theirs, but bright with heavenly grace,
and filled with holy light.
O lay aside each earthly thing
and with thy heart as offering,
come worship now the infant King.
‘Tis love that’s born tonight!

9 Responses to The globe and the gourd: Christianity in a global world

  1. Julie M. Smith on December 14, 2009 at 11:21 am

    Thank you.

    The most touching Christmas-related event that I have ever experienced is the mammoth nativity display in the Palo Alto(?) stake center: each region of the world had a room in the church, decorated and with music, featuring nativity sets from that region. And not only was Jesus “almond-eyed,” but the attending animals were penguins and Mary’s coat was fur-lined! The historian and biblical scholar in me winces slightly, but better sense prevails and I’m pleased that so many people think that Jesus is _theirs_.

  2. john f. on December 14, 2009 at 11:45 am

    Thanks for this. Allison and I had similar thoughts as we viewed the display of nativities from around the world on display in the Bremen Cathedral a couple of weeks ago.

  3. sister blah 2 on December 14, 2009 at 1:27 pm

    Julie I too remember going to the annual Palo Alto exhibit as a youth. IIRC, Rosalynde’s father-in-law was to be seen there on occasion, giving organ recitals?

    This is a lovely piece, Rosalynde. I always appreciate your thinking, but also the care you take in the craft of writing itself (“curtain calls” &etc).

  4. john f. on December 14, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    Rosalynde’s uncle-in-law.

  5. Rosalynde Welch on December 14, 2009 at 3:02 pm

    Thanks for the kind comments, all! I believe that the Palo Alto Creche Festival was the inspiration and model for the St Louis interpretation, which is in its fifth year. It’s a huge undertaking, and my gratitude to the organizers of these festivals in all cities!

  6. Stephanie on December 14, 2009 at 5:29 pm

    Our stake stopped doing this a couple of years ago. My mom collects nativity ornaments, and the two trees she decorated were spectacular. It was a neat way for her to contribute. I’m sad it doesn’t happen anymore (but I don’t think they got enough traffic to warrant the effort and expense).

  7. sister blah 2 on December 15, 2009 at 1:51 am

    Ah, thanks for the correction, John. In any case, the organ recitals were outstanding and uplifting.

  8. Researcher on December 15, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Very interesting musings on your visit, Rosalynde. I never saw it myself, but I know that church members in Arizona put on a large-scale production like this. I can’t find it by googling, but I see that there is a nativity display at the Mesa Temple Visitor’s Center, but due to the size of the Visitor’s Center, it would be quite a bit smaller than the ones described in the post and comments.

  9. Merkat on December 21, 2009 at 2:17 am

    Our ward sang this today for our Christmas program, it was a solo! Interesting choice, but it was very pretty.