I have long declared Elf on the Shelf to be pretty much the worst thing ever. A made up “family tradition” that’s not even a decade old that imposes a creepy stalker Elf in your home to enforce good behaviour from children for the sake of encouraging Santa’s good will? Not to mention just being yet another “thing” parents have to stress over to ensure a magical holiday season for the kiddos. In my less snarky, more thoughtful moments I have occasionally confessed my fear that things like “Elf on a Shelf” emphasize the idea that we need to focus on “acting good” because some mysterious being is watching us — whether that’s God or the man in the big red suit. I fear what the Elf may be teaching kids about how we are invited to engage with God.
Well, my friends. I am here to tell you there is now something worse than the Elf on a Shelf. Something that confirms all the spiritual concerns I have long had with that seemingly harmless Christmas innovation. And, no, I am not talking about the Mensch on a Bench (at least he’s just meant to watch over the Menorah). Alas, but I have seen a sight that cannot be unseen — The Christian cash grab that is “Jesus Sees Us“. I mean, I guess there are much worse things in the realm of Christian kitsch than a Jesus doll based on “Elf on the Shelf.” I’m sure the moms who came up with this somewhat gimmicky idea had the best of intentions about trying to introduce children to the idea of relating to Jesus in a tangible way.
At the same time, there are some truly insidious problems with this toy that speak to much broader trends in how we relate our faith to our children, and how we often understand it ourselves. Lets leave aside for a moment the fact that the “Jesus Sees Us” website itself draws a connection between Jesus and Santa Claus. That’s problematic enough. But the deeply troubling part of this toy as a foundation for spiritual understanding is exactly what it draws from that creepy stalker Elf on a Shelf. The assumption of the “Jesus Sees Us” doll is that it is meant to teach kids how to live with Jesus as a regular part of our lives. That’s not a bad thing by any means. We should teach children to incorporate their faith into their lives. But all the materials (particularly the “lesson book”) that comes with the doll are fundamentally about learning to do the right behaviours, presuming that Jesus is always watching us, as the website states: “By understanding the positive and negative actions of the characters, they will be more likely to make the right decisions in their own lives.”
I have no problems with teaching children good behaviours. I have no problem with seeing Jesus as the ultimate example of how we are meant to live in this world and interact with others. You cannot find a more radical example of self-giving love. I do, however, sincerely worry about the messages we send our children when we present our faith as nothing more than learning to be “good people.” Yet it is a persistent (mis)understanding of the purpose of religion by many people whether child or adult. And I dare say it is the reason so many atheists look with some derision on religious communities. Many of them live lives demonstrating great love and compassion and they are right to question why religion in general (or Christianity specifically) is needed, if its only purpose is the establishment of a moral imperative.
I am writing this post on March 25, the feast of the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Admittedly, I fall more on the Catholic end of the Christian denominational spectrum … but it has to be said this is one of my favourite Feast Days. I love that through much of Christian history, this was seen as one of the principle feasts of the Church. The nerd in me likes to point out that JRR Tolkein had Frodo throw the Ring of Power into Mount Doom and defeat the dark forces of Sauron on March 25. That’s a wonderful image because it reminds us that the work of the Gospel began the moment the Angel Gabriel came to Mary to declare that Mary would give birth to the Messiah. The Christian story — the story of the God who loved the world so much that he came to share in our humanity for the sake of bringing us into communion with God — begins long before Jesus ever said a word or gave us a lesson to follow. Our Christian story is not a moralistic tale of how we can behave in a way to earn the favour of a creepy doll watching us while we sleep. Our Christian story is about actually being loved and being welcomed into communion with the maker of Heaven and Earth.
Sure, that’s hard to teach a kid. I have no idea how I’m going to do it with my daughter. But what I do know is that if we only teach kids about the boring side of Christianity–that it’s primarily about learning right and wrong–we can’t blame them if they decide that’s not much compelling to it.
Also, while I’m at it — stories about God deciding to violently wipe out most of the human race probably aren’t ideal bedtime reading for kids, either, even if they do involve lots of cute animals. But that’s a rant for another day.