Many products are published ‘just in time for Christmas’ (Billy Birmingham is likely working on a new 12th man box set as we speak). But there is an irony in the case of Rex A E Hunt’s latest book, given it names consumerism as one of the various issues clouding our modern understanding of the Christmas season. In contrast to many of the alternative offerings, Hunt’s work will educate, inform, interest and liberate as he endeavours to critically examine how the “discourses of sacred and secular [surrounding the Christmas festival] are addressing each other”. As such, this book should be on your gift list (even as a present to yourself).
As outlined early in the first chapter, this book is clearly a work of love on a topic close to the heart of Hunt, a retired UCA minister based in the nation’s capital (to be disambiguated from the footballer-turned-commentator-turned-fisherman). Admirable effort is invested in appreciation of the contemporary Australian context and local celebrations of Christmas, including events such as the Carols by Candlelight in various states. While this focus gives the book due deference to its purpose and origins within its cultural context, and proves itself undoubtedly thorough, well researched and referenced, I couldn’t help but feel this focus was something of a lengthy delay from what drew me to it in the first place.
Perhaps Hunt felt the work of others has already trod this path smooth – for example, the work of Borg and Crossan on the Virgin birth narratives are referenced. But I found myself most interested in material such as that included in the appendixes.
A timeline of significant developments in thought and practice of Christmas; a thoughtful look at the competing claims made upon the festival by those who wish to exclude religion and those who wish for religion to dominate it and, perhaps most interestingly, the author’s attempts to offer a Christmas liturgy with integrity to its origins and the challenges it still poses and invites us to today. These (amongst others) are gathered in comprehensive yet accessible fashion.
Potentially, the layout of the book is challenged by the always present dual conversations Hunt aims to join: that is, firstly the exploration of Christmas in popular culture, and secondly the intersection of that with Progressive Christianity.
Hunt’s book does not seek to return this evolving and varied festival back to a ‘golden era’ or to ‘put the Christ back into Christmas’. Indeed this book’s strength is Hunt’s ability to critique the pitfalls of the Christian tradition’s own interactions and demands upon its rituals.
There is clarity and confidence in both its narration of the development of contemporary scholarship and thought and in its call towards future possibilities.
If you are seeking a thoughtful look at the forces that shape our tradition’s participation and experience of Christmas, or some hints at language that might continue to herald the birth of new life without doctrinal or creedal suffocation, then this book might make a perfect present – at any time of year.