Below is a message I sent to the Capital University community as we celebrate the holidays. Some in that community encourage me to share it more widely, and so, I now share it with you with tidings of comfort and joy in this season.
The holiday season is squarely upon us. Some holidays, like Diwali, Bodhi Day, and Hanukkah, have already come and gone with fanfare, food, and friendship in bloom. Others, like Christmas and Kwanzaa, are still budding before they blossom.
The Christmas season, which begins on December 25th and lasts for twelve days (you may know the song, after all), emanates from a spectacular story that tells of a moment in time when the fullness of the divine entered the ordinariness of birth. All that is supernatural becomes contained within the body of a baby. After all, Emmanuel, the stage name given to this child called Jesus, means “god with us.” That’s a story of transformative, incomparable power not just come close to us, but dwelling within us. Within our communities and our species, seeking the very best for our communities and our species.
Somehow, though, we’ve sanitized the revolutionary character of this tale. Like Robin Williams’ Genie in Disney’s Aladdin, this is “phenomenal cosmic power (in) itty, bitty living space.” Though the child is small, the potential impact is massive, and the results profound. Christmas reminds us, whatever our traditions, that transformative power lies within the apparently powerless among us. Why do we lose sight of that?
Perhaps we simply do not or cannot believe the miracle. That’s fair. It’s not, after all, logical.
Perhaps we’re raptured by the cuteness of the tale. Indeed, somewhere, at this very moment, someone just yelped, “Baby!” simply because they saw a newborn. That, too, is fair, for children contain an innocence and purity practically alien to our adult experiences.
What if the reason we resist the magic of this season is because we resist the possibility of a power outside of us? Perhaps the issue is not distraction with the external, but pride with the internal. Could our absence of humility prevent us from seeing the absolutely positive cosmic condescension contained within this tale?
Maybe that’s not it, either. Who knows. What I do know is that, annually on Christmas Eve, I hear this story somewhere, usually in a little Lutheran church in Orrville, with family and friends by my side, and we’re together prompted to recall that we are not alone in this universe. Not as a species. Not as communities. Not even as individuals. Somehow, some way, the power that preceded the Big Bang inhabits a child with purpose to transform the very cosmos, beginning with us. That’s a beautiful and powerful reminder these days. You are not alone and you are supported with power. Whatever your present circumstance is not the sum total of your value or your potential. It’s beyond mystical. It’s beyond cute. It’s definitely beyond us, and yet, absolutely within us.
Annually, this story heartens my soul because it offers this reminder: it is never too late to change our world. Not for you. Not for anyone else. That change begins with not just our own fortitude, but with the indwelling of supernatural significance in our midst and for our good. From our immediate spheres of influences to the grandest global contexts, transformation for the better is always possible. Change on any scale begins with change in each of us. And precisely because it is never too late to change the world, now is a divine time to start.
For whatever holidays you and your family celebrate this season, I wish you joy and wonder, happiness and wellness. I hope, in whatever spaces and communities you enter, you are reminded that you are not alone. In that reassurance, may you experience blessing upon blessing.
Grace and peace,
Rev. Drew Tucker | Capital University | 614.236.7737 | email@example.com
University Pastor | Director for the Center for Faith and Learning
Content Warning: This piece will discuss rape and sexual assault in the context of “Baby It’s Cold Outside.”
Like many of you, I’m made quite uncomfortable by the lyrics to the song, “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” Also like many of you, a deep affinity arises at the first few bars of the song as it plays. You see, my grandmothers would hum this tune every Christmas season, along with scores of others from the early and mid 20th century.
So, when a Cleveland radio station announced it would no longer play the song due to its lyrics that ring of rape for so many contemporary listeners, my reaction swirled. Though nostalgia was strong within my response, even stronger was simply this: if the song troubles survivors and victims of sexual assault, then we need not keep forcing it on the radio. Also, and not for nothing, but we’re also talking about a single outlet of a dying media. People can still find the song on iTunes, Amazon Music, Spotify, Pandora, and hundreds of other places. Those who still want the song can have access to it without demanding it be in the ears of everyone listening to a public broadcast.
Yet, something kept nagging my brain. Could we have really been listening to a song that celebrated date rape without consideration for over seventy years?
Then I encountered an article entitled, “Radio bans ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’ because it is a ‘Rape Song’ but an English teacher sets the record straight.” First off, the clickbait title disheartened me. Only one station made this decision (or perhaps a few more have followed suit by now), so neither the entire radio industry nor the FCC banned the song. Secondly, giving such authority to a single English teacher seems, well, unwise.
Even so, this former English teacher and music enthusiast lifted up an fascinating point. Namely, the line “what’s in this drink” was a common trope at the time to joke about how weak a drink was, about how little alcohol was in the concoction at all. Rather than an accusatory statement about the use of GHB or Rohypnol to alter her mental state, the line suggests a strong mental acuity. This author goes on to suggest other lines, such as “at least I’m gonna say that I tried,” give context for a woman’s expression agency and authority over her own body in a time where social norms would shame her decision to engage in intimacy with this man. Given my concerns, I checked out this logic, which was confirmed in a other places and, interesting, by self-identified feminists here and here. More on it here and here.
This is important data to consider. What it does not do, however, is simply end the conversation. Rather, it exemplifies the evolving nature of language and its tie to cultural acceptance of various behaviors. Simply stated, language isn’t static. Over time, our definitions of words change. Or, how we use certain words and phrases changes. Consider this: the word queer was once an innocuous word that meant something was odd, then became derogatory slang for people in the LGTBQIA+ community, and now those people have reclaimed the word as a positive definition of identity, especially for nonbinary folx.
In other words, it can be entirely true that when Frank Loesser wrote Baby It’s Cold Outside in 1944, he intended to speak honestly about an intimate, consensual engagement between a man and a woman who were both in control of what they were doing. It can also be entirely true that, when played now, the juxtaposition of “what’s in this drink” combined with an apparent refusal to honor this woman’s desire to depart communicates a traumatic message to survivors of relationship violence.
What, then, are we to do? Let’s clarify a few things:
Given the evolutionary nature of language and how current listeners hear the words sung within Baby It’s Cold Outside, it is entirely appropriate for people to opt out of listening to or promoting the song. Though such meaning is likely alien to the creator’s intent, that does not necessarily affect the impact upon present-day listeners who have been shaped by rape culture and who are separated from the creator’s cultural context. It can be helpful to know the cultural origin of the song in order to speak meaningfully about the creator, and that should be noted; yet, just because Loesser couldn’t imagine a world where this would be inappropriate does not invalidate the offense people experience as they hear these lyrics in light of our contemporary context.
Similarly, when you use language, take care that you consider how listeners will hear what you say. We are responsible, as speakers and authors to attend to our audience as much as possible so our words resonate not just in their ears but with their lives. They may, eventually, go out of style, as it seems this song has for some. Yet, the more care with which we construct our language, the more potential we have to make an impact.
Similarly, as listeners, we should interpret with both authenticity and humility. In other words, if someone’s use of language hurts, offends, or triggers us. We should also understand that such words might have different meaning in another culture, or within another time period, or even another community. Just ask someone from rural Ohio whether dinner is supposed to be served at midday or in the evening and you’ll find a common confusion. Of course, the content and effects of Baby It’s Cold Outside are much more personal than proper reference to a meal, but again, it simply lifts up the fluidity of language. While indeed some people use language to intentionally hurt us, many other are ignorant to how their use of a certain word or phrase might meet our ears.
Grandma Doris and Grandma Jeanette, both of blessed memory, would have no clue that as they shuffled about their kitchens singing and baking, cooking and prepping for Christmas dinner, their words might communicate anything offensive to one of their guests. That doesn’t mean the words were harmless, but rather, they had no idea how they had caused harm. The only way we can make progress here is through recognizing the flexibility of language and explaining how words that seem innocent to them, or to Frank Loesser, or to so many others who defend them, cause discomfort at the least and perhaps great trauma.
So, despite a catchy melody and an appearance in one of my all time favorite Christmas movies Elf, I won’t be actively choosing or defending Baby It’s Cold Outside. It’s apparently innocent, and even progressive, origins deserve consideration, but there’s plenty of other excellent holiday music I can choose that won’t put loved ones at unnecessary risk. We need not condemn Frank Loesser, or even those who have loved the song before, but now, given the ways that the song rings in the ears of survivors and victims, we can see how language has evolved in ways that should lead us to leave our Baby It’s Cold Outside records on the shelves.
Recently, while perusing Facebook for no reason in particular, I noticed a comment on a friend and pastoral colleague’s post: “You’re such a pit stirrer!” As a theologian, I found the original post clarifying rather than controversial, but the inspiration for this writing is not the content of the original post. It is the accusation itself: a pot stirrer. Whether this particular commenter intended a more jovial or exasperated tone, I know not; yet all too often pot stirrers receive negative glances and condemnatory attitudes. I wonder why this is?
I don’t really wonder, though. I have something more than suspicions, though admittedly less than absolute knowledge. People fear pot stirrers because stirring the pot upsets the status quo. Stability, stasis, standards, staying put seem to be the ultimate pursuit for so many in our society. At least, so many with power and privilege. Indeed, one online dictionary refers to pot stirrers as those who "cause unrest." The logic goes something like this: We need no movement because the present context is sufficient. Why would we upset the relative calm we experience and live with unnecessary trouble? So it goes for those critics of pot stirrers.
What happened the last time you left a pot on the stove unstirred? Even on low heat, left unattended, an unstirred pot will eventually sear on bottom. Unstirred pasta clumps. Unstirred oatmeal burns. Even when the top looks normal (so to speak), whatever is at the bottom of an unstirred pot suffers the direst of consequences. What seems like unnecessary trouble for the top layers distorts and destroys those on the bottom. Without pot stirring, there’s always a loss. To vamp on the above definition, there's always unrest. The status quo causes unrest to those on the bottom, exposed constantly to the most extreme life situations. Pot stirrers ensure that such forces don't become destructive for anyone. Pot stirrers, then, don't cause unrest. They expose the disturbing realities of life to the entire pot, especially those at rest on top who do not, and perhaps refuse to, notice the disturbances below them.
As I see it, pot stirrers in the kitchen care about the entire meal. It will take longer to cook if you keep stirring but it will distribute the heat evenly to all the contents. Those who stir the pots of society care about more than the current status of the social pot because they understand the appearance of stability is not, in fact, peace. Pot stirrers attend to all the food in the pot, and as such, societal pot stirrers try to attend to all people in society.
I just spent three invigorating days on site with Concordia College and their team of people developing interreligious relationships, programming, and academics. They are, the lot of them, a blessed bunch of pot stirrers, because they’re attending to people who have not often received significant attention in the academy or in faith-based (read: Christian) college contexts. I was fortunate that two colleagues, Craig Burgdoff and Sally Stamper, accompanied me. Each brought a legacy of profound teaching and purposeful pot stirring with them. We learned much about the development of a minor in Interfaith Studies, the development of a program for undergraduate Interfaith Scholars, creation of student programming that accompanies people of diverse faith backgrounds and pursues equitable justice for all, and development of a President’s Interfaith Advisory Council, among many other things. I learned much from our hosts, including Dr. Jaqueline Bussie, who is the Director of the Forum on Faith and Life, as well as my Capital colleagues as we decompressed the data and explored new and renewed relationships.
What struck me most consistently, throughout the entire process, was this: changes happened, small and large, because people were willing to risk stirring the pot. One student, a wheelchair user, talked about her issues around religious life and accessibility. She stirred the pot and made positive changes for herself and her peers. We heard of an administration that allocated over a hundred thousand dollars in program funding to support diverse spiritual expression at Concordia, which stirred up new faith knowledge and religious practices in the community’s consciousness. We met with faculty who include religious diversity into their courses across the curriculum, from communication to psychology to business, upsetting the standard expectations for what’s necessary knowledge for success in those fields. None of this was status quo. It all required pot stirrers.
And the result of that pot stirring? Enriched community. Some people we met with felt more enfranchised, while others felt more willing to vocalize their disenfranchisement. Notice that both of these responses represent progress. The former has found safer space, while the latter finds confidence that their voice matters and can make a difference. Of course, we didn’t discover a perfect community; rather, we discovered a community more authentically acknowledging the spiritualities and religious practices brought by the people within, as we well as a cultural commitment to raising the profile of religion and spirituality in the priorities of university life.
I have to admit, I want to be a pot stirrer. We need to stir the pots of religion, faith, and spirituality to ensure all people are seen and known. We need to stir the pots of social justice to attend to the needs of people of color, of the LGBTQIA+ community, of women, of native populations, of immigrants, of ethnic minorities, and a whole of other marginalized folx. Though in my privilege I benefit from the relative calm of the status quo, I am not satisfied with the current status of the pot because the appearance of stability is not, in fact, peace.
If you feel this too, don’t be afraid to stir the pot. Find colleagues and friends who will take up a spoon and stir with you.
If you are afraid of stirring the pot, but want it to happen, find ways to support those willing to lead. Use your money, your time, and your voice to support their work.
If you don’t want the pot stirred at all, try two things: 1st, ask yourself honestly why you’re satisfied with the way things are, and then read the work of people like Austen Channing Brown, Drew Hart, Nadia Bolz Weber, James Cone, and Austen Hartke, who will present some arguments about why the pot needs stirred.
If nothing else, the next time you hear someone accuse another of being a pot stirrer, or you find an impetus within yourself to call someone a pot stirrer, ask yourself this question: What’s so bad about that, after all?
Simultaneously a sinner and a saint.