Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Joy to the World

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols! Thank you for reading and you can see the complete list of subversive carols here.

“Joy to the World” by Isaac Watts

Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Advent is a time for us to prepare our hearts that God may enter. To assist with that, “Joy to the World” begins with a beautiful theological metaphor of God’s love for the world. Acknowledging that the Christmas-event occurred 2,000 years ago, we sing that the “Lord is come,” not “has come,” but “is.” In other words, Christ has never left! And with that, everything in the world and above the world celebrates. This is the subversiveness of Immanuel, God-with-us, the God-who-never-leaves.

In theological terms, this is called kenosis meaning self-emptying. God gave up God’s power that God might have a body. This body changed theology forever. When we speak of the having God enter the room in our heart, we are asking God/Her that we too may practice our own kenosis. This is why the Earth is rejoicing because no longer are we spilling toxic waste into her veins or mining her skin because we are self-empting and humbling ourselves to become nothing.

Kenosis runs through the whole song. People are singing, and the Earth is sounding with joy. Together we are practicing a form of mutual aid by caring for one another and the Earth. In the third verse, the ancient curse of sin is destroyed when God becomes a body. The curses that societies have found in us, of low self-worth, of being a “lesser sex,” of having the “wrong skin color” is changed and transformed. We can live judgment free and love one another with respect and dignity!

Finally, the last verse sings us out with a new version of globalization. We don’t need to trade goods to be good neighbors; we preform this new globalization through justice. Brother Cornel West once said, “Justice is what love looks like in the public.” This song is not necessarily about the US, or us but about the Earth and countries that do not have global power. The joy extends around the world and begins when we practice kenosis and neighborliness.

Joy to the World

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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: I heard the drones on Christmas Day

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

For this post, I wanted to do something different. Instead of interpreting a carol, I rewrote one. Recently, the US’ use of drones for military combat has been on my mind, and even more so with the misfiring and killing of 17 persons traveling to a wedding in Yemen. That is so disgusting, inhumane, and evil. Out of my frustration, I crafted this song. I hope to have audio up soon as well.

I heard the drones on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar humming sway,
In bloody snow
the bodies lay
Of peace on earth, goodwill to All!

And we feared the coming drones,
the minions of America
Had rolled along
The skies stark black
Of peace on earth, goodwill to All!

Our crying, screaming in dismay,
The world revolts both night to day,
A chant so strong,
Our protest song,
Of peace on earth, goodwill to All!

Then shouting from the commander’s mouth
Another drone takes to the sky
The bombs a sound
Our protests drowned
Of peace on earth, goodwill to All!

They have taken our rights away,
We are but a game to them,
And made forlorn
Our songs are worn
Of peace on earth, goodwill to All!

And in despair we bowed our heads;
“There’s no peace on earth,” we said;
“The US is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to All!”

Then we cried out ever more
“We do not want this empty war
We’re tired of this
We’ve lost it all.
Of peace on earth, goodwill to All.”

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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: We Three Kings

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“We Three Kings” by John Henry Hopkins, Jr.

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain,
Following yonder star.

O star of wonder, star of night,
Star with royal beauty bright,
Westward leading, still proceeding,
Guide us to thy perfect Light.

Born a king on Bethlehem’s plain,
Gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never
Over us all to reign.

Frankincense to offer have I.
Incense owns a Deity nigh.
Prayer and praising all men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

Myrrh is mine: it’s bitter perfume
Breaths a life of gathering gloom.
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Glorious now behold Him arise,
King and God and Sacrifice.
Alleluia, alleluia!
Sounds through the earth and skies

In conversation, when someone uses Orient or Oriental to describe someone/something, my senses heighten and I am ready to pounce, even if it is something nice or indifferent. This is because I took a wonderful and transforming class on Postcolonial Women’s Novels. Let’s just say we read a ton on postcolonial theory. One of these theorists was the late great Edward Said, who constructed the theory of Orientalism. In summary,

“Said calls into question the underlying assumptions that form the foundation of Orientalist thinking. A rejection of Orientalism entails a rejection of biological generalizations, cultural constructions, and racial and religious prejudices. It is a rejection of greed as a primary motivating factor in intellectual pursuit. It is an erasure of the line between ‘the West’ and ‘the Other.’”

You can catch my drift. For thousands of years, Western culture has neglected and stigmatized Eastern culture declaring it less than equal. So when the opening line of “We Three Kings,” describes the kings location as in the Orient, I cringe. I want to suggest though, that “We Three Kings” mocks all of our ideas of Orientalism and forces us to sing a carol guides away from Orientalism.

Other than knowing that they are from the East, we can acknowledge that they are rich and carry gifts. Hence, they are not the romanticized foreigners, but personalized. These kings travel far following a special star that will lead them to hope. In addition, this journey is not some simple walk in a park, but very costly. They have to travel over mountains, fields, and even fountains.

Then we come to the chorus. And I assume that it’s the travelers belting it out. They are singing to the star in all its glory. It’s these last two lines of the chorus that gets tricky. They sing that they are traveling westward to see the perfect light. Could this mean the perfect light is only in the West? Or is it possible the perfect light shines in the East as much as it does in the West, since they could see it there as well? Perhaps.

In the verses following, the kings sing of the gifts they brought to the king-babe. This includes: gold, frankincense, and myrrh, of course. Here we are presented with the absurd. Kings, east of Bethlehem, bearing gifts to a newborn child who is still nursing. Strange indeed! They praise this baby as God. The last verse calls the babe, “King and God and Sacrifice.” This is a huge expectation for a child who just breathed his first breathe moments earlier. Thus “We Three Kings” presents Eastern culture as enriching and of its own. Yet, its theology sides on the ridiculous. They worship the babe-God, the divine child, the swaddling Messiah. Is this radical and subversive? Yes, certainly. Strange? Most definitely. Are we called to do the same? Absolutely! Let the incarnate God rupture your wisdom for foolishness!

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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Wonderful Christmastime

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Wonderful Christmastime” by Paul McCartney

The moon is right
The spirit’s up
We’re here tonight
And that’s enough

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The party’s on
The feelin’s here
That only comes
This time of year

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The choir of children sing their song
Ding dong, ding dong
Ding dong, ding, oh, oh

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

The word is out
About the town
To lift a glass
Ah, don’t look down

Simply having a wonderful Christmastime
Simply having a wonderful Christmastime

In 1979, “Wonderful Christmastime” was released. Paul McCartney, then an ex-Beatle and the lead singer of Wings wrote it. On the radio, this song gets such an absurd amount of  airtime that McCartney receives $400,000-$600,000 a year in royalties. Honestly, this is a huge brick wall for me attempting to interpret this carol as subversive. If with only one song, McCartney is making more money than 80% of US workers without actually doing anything, but writing and copyrighting a song, we have a serious problem on our hands. Much more can be said about income disparity and inequality among the working class and the ruling class, but I will save that for another post. For now, I want to construct new subversive meanings behind these lyrics.

The line “Simply having a wonderful Christmastime” repeats fourteen times throughout the song. This is done for two reasons. First, it demonstrates the simplicity of Christmas. The chorus is not concerned with presents, mistletoe, candles, angels, or even the baby Jesus. Instead, it sheds light on the simplicity of the Christmas season. In addition, it denotes Christmas as a time in space. For “Wonderful Christmastime,” Christmas is more than just a holiday, it is a presence. Although, Christmastime is mostly found in winter, it could possibly be located all year round. The simplicity and the presence help us not to be distracted by the holiday and celebrate Christmastime.

Moving onto the verses, there are only three verses found in this song if they are not repeated. Two of them speak of a friendly gathering and the third takes the gathering into the streets. In the first verse, friends are gathered for a fun time with the singer. Everything about this gathering is perfect: the weather, the friends surrounding her/him, and the spirit. The spirit is no ghost of Christmas past or a haunting figure. The spirit actually is that which is situated among the peoples, and without the peoples, there is no spirit. Thus in the first verse, the spirit moves the people and keeps them joyful during their time together.

In the second verse, which mirrors the first in rhythm and lyrics, the spirit is removed. In its place are “the feelin’s.” These feelings can only be found during Christmastime. Furthermore, “the feelin’s” do not negate the spirit; instead, they grant the spirit flesh. It is the fleshy feeling that we find in this song: the touching of bodies through hugs, kisses, and handshakes. Indeed, through these acts of incarnation do we see the spirit move and transform the world!

Finally, in the last verse, the party enters the streets expressing their fellin’ spirit. They raise a glass to new possibilities, to a just world, never looking down. This is a hope for a better future. They are pushing the boundaries of love and hope. Christmastime transcends holidays and seasons. It cannot be domesticated and set on a shelf until next year. Catching the Christmas-spirit changes us and the world. Let’s celebrate!

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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Once In Royal David’s City

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Once in Royal David’s City” by Cecil Frances Alexander and Henry J. Gauntlett

Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby
In a manger for his bed:
Mary was that mother mild,
Jesus Christ her little child.

He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And his shelter was a stable,
And his cradle was a stall;
With the poor, and mean, and lowly,
Lived on earth our Savior holy.

And our eyes at last shall see him,
Through his own redeeming love;
For that child so dear and gentle
Is our Lord in heav’n above,
And he leads his children on
To the place where he is gone.

Juxtaposed to “royal David’s city” is the “lowly cattle shed.” While the song is titled “Once in Royal David’s city,” the notion of royalty is rejected and focuses on Mary and Jesus in the wretched manger. The child is found lying in the shed, put there by his mother, rather than sitting up on a tiny throne in a royal position. Mary is not a queen, but the mother mild taking care of her child. Thus the song’s title is a veil to the lyrics in the first verse.

The incarnation, a doctrine defined much later, is the notion that God gives up Godhood to make those on Earth whole by becoming a baby. Commonly, the radical notion of incarnation is overshadowed by theological understandings of the cross. “Once in Royal David’s City” causes us to linger a little while longer. The second verse is front heavy with heavenly royal theological language that it becomes meaningless by the end of the second verse. The high christology of Jesus as “God and Lord of all” is undone when Jesus is “with the poor, the mean, and the lowly.” Jesus gives up divinity to be with the socially rejected, those dangerous to the Empire, and the down and out. This verse ends with a Jesus-among-the-people and not a far off Jesus-in-the-heavens, and divinity was pushed to the side.

In the final verse, “Once in Royal David’s City” focuses so much on the incarnation that the cross is skipped over. Through Jesus’ redeeming love, not blood, we shall see him. The writers suggest that the “child so dear and gentle” as well “is our Lord in heav’n above.” Hence, the incarnation is ridiculous, the lying babe is also the savior: a child-redeemer. In conclusion, Jesus never grows up in the hymn, but stays a child who “leads his children on.”

What foolishness!

A powerless powerness.

A God-babe.

An incarnation through a weeping and poopy nursling!

Israeli Wall

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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Have A Holly, Jolly Christmas

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” by Johnny Marks
Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
It’s the best time of the year
I don’t know if there’ll be snow
but have a cup of cheer
Have a holly, jolly Christmas;
And when you walk down the street
Say Hello to friends you know
and everyone you meet

Oh ho
the mistletoe
hung where you can see;
Somebody waits for you;
Kiss her once for me
Have a holly jolly Christmas
and in case you didn’t hear
Oh by golly
have a holly
jolly Christmas this year

Johnny Marks wrote “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” in mid 1960’s. He is famous for many other Christmas songs as well,, i.e. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Silver and Gold . Ironically Johnny Marks practiced Judaism, yet stayed true to his tradition in that he never wrote songs that mentioned Jesus, only the time of year. I consider “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” one of those universal Christmas carols that anyone can sing on spot. The most famous version of this song was performed by: Burls Ives in 1965.

Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas described ethics as “a call without a caller.” We act toward and treat others, keeping their well-being in mind as we act in the world. The same could be said for this song.

Winter can be a miserable time of the year especially for those with season affective disorder. Christmas also can bring to mind horrible memories of Christmases past. Religious groups every year hold Blue Christmas services to mourn our past loved ones. Polls have shown that people feel the saddest and loneliest around the holidays. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” subverts the individualism of Christmas and demands a new communal existence.

The opening lyrics are ripe with hope in the face of disappointment. Every year we sing carols romanticizing having a  snowfall for Christmas (“I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”). These songs place a desire within us that if not filled, we become disappointed. “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” helps as our holiday therapist, letting us know that even if it doesn’t snow, we can still have an enjoyable time with a “cup of cheer.”

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” calls for us to see the humanity in others. In the second part of the first verse, whenever we leave our homes we should greet our friends with gentle welcome. Friendship is good and important, but if the verse stopped here, it would keep the status quo of relationships. Yet, the song takes it a step further and calls us to greet everyone we meet. In other words, we are asked to speak to everyone. This is an act of radical hospitality! We see the humanity within strangers and acknowledge them with love and respect.

Lastly, the mistletoe is the universal sign for loving physical contact. Thankfully, the gendered language in recent years has changed to “em,” short for them. Under the mistletoe one voluntarily escapes the world and is transported to the arms of another with great affection. This is a hiccup to the very system of consumption and replaces it with the reality of love and affection. 

“Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas” wants us to engage with neighbors, known and not-yet-known. It posits a new ethical life and grants us public spaces for affection. Our communal ethic stretches us to be as human as possible–without technological distractions and emphasizes hospitality.

Holly Jolly Christmas!

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Advent, Christainity, Christmas, Subversive Carols

Subversive Carols: Little Drummer Boy

This series will interpret our beloved Christmas and Advent carols not as sentimental songs, but as a challenge to the status quo. Many of these subversive themes are already found in the lyrics, yet are often not pointed out. Enjoy the 12 days of Subversive Carols!

“The Little Drummer Boy” by Katherine Kennicott Davis

Come they told me, pa rum pum pum pum
A new born king to see, pa rum pum pum pum
Our finest gifts we bring, pa rum pum pum pum
To lay before the king, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

So to honor him, pa rum pum pum pum,
When we come.

Little baby, pa rum pum pum pum
I am a poor boy too, pa rum pum pum pum
I have no gift to bring, pa rum pum pum pum
That’s fit to give the king, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Shall I play for you, pa rum pum pum pum,
On my drum?

Mary nodded, pa rum pum pum pum
The ox and lamb kept time, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my drum for him, pa rum pum pum pum
I played my best for him, pa rum pum pum pum,
rum pum pum pum, rum pum pum pum,

Then he smiled at me, pa rum pum pum pum
Me and my drum.

My first church music performance was “The Little Drummer Boy.” At the time I was in fourth grade and I played the snare drum while my dad sang and played guitar. Of course I was nervous so I wanted to look nice and wore a festive tie, just in case I messed up the rhythm. Everything went well and I haven’t stopped playing music in church. Trying to pick on version that I find to be my favorite is difficult since there are over 220 versions. Here’s a new version by Pentatonix.

Upon looking into “The Little Drummer Boy,” I found no history in the anti-war movement or even being overtly political. Originally it was titled “Carol of the Drum” written for chorale groups in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis. So let’s take a look at the lyrics:

The song itself holds many assumptions about the Christmas narrative. Clearly, the songwriter had in mind Matthew’s Gospel, since his Gospel is the only one that includes the Magi. In the song, the Magi ask the drummer boy to accompany them as they bring their finest gifts. Our first radical eruption comes by way of “a new born king.” A king who has just been born does not have power. He can’t speak, act in an intelligent way, or think cogently. Everything the king does is done through the will of his mother.

Second, why would these Magi bring their finest gifts to a newborn king who cannot appreciate them? This is not wise, but wasteful. These Magi are trying to gain honor and respect through such an act and upholding the status quo.

Now we arrive to the little drummer boy. He tells the king-babe that he is young, poor, and without any gifts for him. Let’s pause here, the little drummer talks to the little baby? His breath is wasted. When he asks if he can play his drum for him, it is not the child who responds, but his mother. We should too acknowledge that Jesus is never named. The only person in the carol named is Mary!

Then, when the tiny drummer plays his drums for the baby, the surrounding community contributes to it. The drummer’s small gift grows vastly when he begins to play. The ox and lamb are essentially playing the kick drum. Mary both gives a nod for him to play then too enjoys it by continue nodding to the beat. And the baby-king smiles for the drummer.

The most important point in this song is that everyone is enjoying the drumming. The Magis gifts are forgotten. It is the presence of the drummer and his song rather than the presents of the Magi. It is not the consumption of gifts that fulfills the king-baby, but through the presence of others. This song thus mocks the Magis for their gifts, and upholds the drummer for his gift that is not seen as precious as the gifts of the Magi.

little drummer

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