If there is anything that I truly enjoy, as a reporter, it's talking with articulate, sharp people who are totally comfortable in their own skins and open about what they think and believe. This goes for secularists and religious liberals too, I must emphasize. The folks I have trouble working with, as a journalist, are the people -- left or right -- who are trying to hide what they believe and think. Take, for example, liberal bishops who have to hide the fine details of their beliefs, so that there isn't too much fallout in the offering plates in centrist and traditionalist parishes. But that's another story.
Anyway, I really enjoyed getting to interview Washington Post reporter Hank Stuever, the author of a somewhat snarky, but at all times well-reported and heartfelt, book about Christmas entitled "Tinsel." Stuever is an openly gay entertainment reporter who calls himself a "cultural Catholic," which, in his case, seems to mean that he has rejected all of the central doctrines of the faith, but he is also skeptical about his own unbelief. He's just plan skeptical, period, which means that he is a reporter's reporter.
To catch a glimpse of his style, check out his recent visit to the "Late, Late Show." And here's the top of a lengthy excerpt that ran the other day in the Style section (naturally) that gives you the basics about what Stuever set out to do, which was to embed himself on the front lines of a suburbanized Christmas in the Bible Belt.
I set out to tell a story about Christmas, but also about everything else: our weird economy, our modern sense of home, our oft-broken hearts, and our notions of God. The biggies. To tell it, I turned to a world made possible by chain stores, in an American economy mainly powered by the magical thinking of retail.
Where novelists and the makers of romantic holiday comedy movies exaggerate and fictionalize the Christmas past (cozy Dickens villages, snowy mornings, Cameron Diaz and Jude Law in turtleneck sweaters), I desired something more true, to see the nation's half-trillion-dollar holiday in the high-definition light of the early 21st century, the real Christmas present, starting at the butt-crack of dawn in front of the big-box stores. I wanted to be there with hundreds of rabid consumers who'd waited all night for the melee of Black Friday to begin. I went looking for a country living not only on borrowed time, but also on borrowed grace. Which is how I wound up in Frisco, a former farm town turned Dallas mega burb, north of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Freeway, north of the President George Bush Turnpike; a place that grew in 15 years from 6,000 people to 100,000 people and, in the past decade, opened 7 million square feet of chain retail and restaurants.
I went toward the starter mansions. I went for the Sunday mornings at the giant churches, rockin' to those ring-tone power ballads for Christ. I longed to see neighbors compete to have the best holiday light displays. I wanted to bask in all that bless-your-heart. The hottie moms in pink feather boas and Ugg boots waiting in line at Starbucks; the hottie dads in camouflage hunting gear examining flat-screen upgrades at the Best Buy. I wanted all that. Lord, I wanted to borrow some grace, too.
Stuever and I talked for more than two hours and it seemed like 20 minutes. I am, of course, a prodigal Texan who gets sweaty palms in shopping malls and, frankly, Stuever was much more patient and kind than I would have been trying to write about the material that he covered. He takes the people totally serious, even while lacing his work with large does of sarcasm and even cynicism when he deals with the culture in which they live.
I would have jumped straight to anger, which would have sent me to my priest for confession over and over and over.
Why? Here is the opening of my Christmas column about "Tinsel" for the Scripps Howard News Service:
As the Christmas pageant dress rehearsal rolled to its bold finale, reporter Hank Stuever found his mind drifting away to an unlikely artistic destination -- a masterpiece from the Cubist movement.
The cast of "It's a Wonderful Life 2" reassembled onstage at Celebration Covenant Church, a suburban mega church north of Dallas. There were characters from a Victorian tableau, along with Frosty the Snowman, young ballerinas and children dressed as penguins. Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were there, too.
Then, entering from stage right, came "an adult Christ stripped down to his loincloth and smeared with Dracula blood, dragging a cross to center stage while being whipped by two centurion guards," writes Stuever, in "Tinsel," his open-a-vein study of Christmas in the American marketplace. "Here is where the Nativity, Dickens and Burl Ives collide head-on with Good Friday, as Jesus is crucified while everyone sings 'Hark the Herald Angels Sing,' ending on a long, noisy note: 'newborn kiiiiiiiiiiiiiiing.'
"Then they freeze.
"Hold it for applause."
The scene was achingly sincere and painfully bizarre, with holy images jammed into a pop framework next to crass materialism. For millions of Americans, this is the real Christmas.
"I wrote it in my notes, right there in that church," Stuever said. "I wrote, 'It's Picasso. ... I just couldn't believe it."
The key is that Stuever, who is not a Christian believer, openly sought the true meaning of Christmas in the material world. He pretty much proves that this is what most Americans do, whether they want to admit it or not. As I put it in the column, "Most Americans say they want Bethlehem and the North Pole, but the truth is that they invest more time, energy and money at the North Pole."
You really need to read the book, if you have the stomach for it. I am not alone in thinking this. I mean, click on over and check out this take on "Tinsel" by Rod "Crunchy Cons" Dreher.
Stuever asked three Frisco families to let him hang out with them constantly -- even on Christmas morning -- to see the season through their eyes, from before Black Friday right on to the trashing of mountains of ripped wrapping paper.
This is the end of my column. Once again, note that Stuever is being absolutely candid about what he does and does not believe. You have to salute him for that.
Stuever argues that the binges of shopping and feasting are as ancient -- and more significant today -- than the rites of praying and believing.
For Stuever, Christmas is fake, but that's fine because fake is all there is. He argues that millions of Americans struggle to find the "total moments" of nostalgia and joy that they seek at Christmas because they are not being honest about why they do what they do during the all-consuming dash to Dec. 25.
"It's so easy to see all of the craziness on TV and say, 'Oh, those poor, stupid people,'" he said. "But when you get down there in the middle of it with them and listen to what people are saying and try to feel what they are feeling, you realize that all of that wildness is not just about buying the new Wii at Best Buy. ... It's a religious experience for them, even though it couldn't be more secular. They're out there searching for transcendence, trying to find what they think is the magic of Christmas."
That's hard to hear. Has anyone else read the book?