Around this time of year, some people argue about whether the baristas at their local coffee franchises should say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas.” Others argue about whether their churches should hang Christmas wreaths before the end of Advent. Still others focus on more hotly debated points—such as whether Die Hard is a Christmas movie or whether Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is festive or annoying.
All the while, we are leaving unattended a debate that might tell us something about the state of American religion. I’m referring, of course, to the Elf on the Shelf.
Sold alongside a book of the same name, first published in 2005, the Elf on the Shelf is a plastic figure, bedecked in a long cap, that perches on the mantles (and various other spots) of some American homes. The elf is said to be a scout for Santa Claus, helping him determine who’s naughty and who’s nice. For some, the elf is uncannily eerie—the way creepy children in horror movies can be.
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A decade ago, journalist Kate Tuttle argued in The Atlantic that the Elf on the Shelf is “a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a ‘tradition.’” She listed many reasons she hated the practice, but her most pointed one was the conceit behind the whole thing: teaching children that it’s all right to be spied on. The elf, after all, sits on his perch from Thanksgiving to Christmas to see whether kids keep the rules and behave.
While Tuttle might be right that there’s “something uniquely fake about the Elf,” the idea of controlling behavior with the notion that someone “sees you when you’re sleeping” and “knows when you’re awake” is rooted in something far older and deeper in human history. In fact, one writer argues that the impulse behind the Elf on the Shelf explains human civilization itself.
In his book Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How It Changes Us, Brian Klaas (no relation to Santa) writes that civilizations without some sort of shared moral order don’t survive. Citing the work of psychologist Ara Norenzayan, Klaas argues for a “survival of the holiest” thesis of civilizations. The idols of the hunter-gatherer clans weren’t concerned about personal moral transgressions, and they typically weren’t all-knowing. The societies with “Big Gods”—who would conduct moral surveillance even of hidden behavior—were the ones that built up social trust.
That is, a state of constant vigilance to make sure others weren’t stealing or cheating wasn’t necessary if there was an ongoing “divine surveillance” of one’s neighbors and oneself. Even if there’s no justice in this life, such societies would teach, there would be in the next.
“Just as nuclear weapons act as a deterrent because of ‘mutually assured destruction,’ religion produces another form of MAD: mutually assured damnation,” Klaas argues. “Shared belief creates social cohesion.”
To build the kind of trust needed to get an evolutionary edge, Klaas suggests, a society would need “moralizing omniscient gods.” Citing the Big Gods thesis that “watched people are nice people,” Klaas writes that studies bear out the fact that human beings behave more morally when they believe they’re being observed.
That’s where the Elf on the Shelf comes into the picture.
Klaas notes that “abstractions are less effective than physical reminders of a watchful overlord,” which explains “why parents who found the threat of Santa Claus insufficient to turn their naughty children nice have innovated.” The Elf on the Shelf, he argues, serves as another watchful eye “to extract slightly better behavior from their mischievous children.”
This might be true, but even that innovation gets boring after a while. That’s why, as the years go by, parents find accelerating ways to pose the elf at night while the children sleep, such as propping him next to an overturned bag of flour. I’ve even heard of posing the Elf on the Shelf to appear as though he wrecked the family’s Nativity scene—which raises all sorts of theological problems.
Apparently, the elf can be as mischievous as he wants. The key is that he is watching and will report what he surveils to the one who doles out the gifts.
What’s interesting is that behind this argument is a critical question about what religion is. Is it merely an evolutionary adaptation whose purpose is to bind societies together? If so, then the Elf on the Shelf and other such games are simply pantomiming in miniature the way grown-ups are manipulated into behaving—just with a cosmically more significant “Elf.”
We can and should learn a great deal from these observations. Certainly, religion is often created and used this way. We’ve seen that repeatedly when political, tribal, or religious leaders use a form of religion to keep the masses accountable but make themselves out to be unquestionable. Those of us who are Christians obviously believe that the gospel is much more than that.
Love can be manipulated too, as we’ve seen countless times throughout human history. Yet most of us intuitively know that love is not just a firing of hormonal sensors to keep people reproducing and deter them from killing their own children.
Jesus repeatedly refused to provide a “useful” religion. The Sermon on the Mount can hardly bind societies and tribes together when it’s paired with “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).
The Bible indeed reveals a God who is concerned with personal—not just public—behavior. This is why, the apostle Paul argues, every human being has some sense of morality grounded not just in societal expectations but in conscience (Rom. 2:14–16). And yes, those consciences are signposts to a greater accounting yet to come: “the day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ” (v. 16).
Sometimes this aspect of God’s seeing must be emphasized. Upon showing the prophet Ezekiel the idols in the sanctuary of the temple, God asks, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land’” (Ezek. 8:12).
What stands out to me, though, is how strikingly more comprehensive the seeing of the God of the Bible is. Hagar—a servant woman in exile because of the mistreatment of Abram and Sarai—encounters God in the wilderness. “She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ for she said, ‘I have now seen the One who sees me’” (Gen. 16:13). This is a woman who is considered dispensable, no longer useful, and thus invisible to her community. But God sees her. She is not alone in the cosmos. His eye is on the sparrow, and his eye is on her.
Perhaps that’s why one of the most remarkable things about Jesus in his encounters with people—especially in the Gospel of John—is his seeing them as they are, such as the private character of Nathanael: “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you” (John 1:48). After Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well, she tells her fellow villagers, “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” (4:29).
In our current cultural context, people will sometimes say, “I feel seen.” What they usually mean is that someone is paying attention to them—someone understands who they really are. The God of Abraham and Jacob and Jesus is a God who sees. This seeing is more than moral control, more than social cohesion.
This is not an Elf-on-the-Shelf religion; this is good news of great joy.
Russell Moore is editor in chief at Christianity Today.