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Not exactly the merriest of Christmases Topical: The Atlantic Monthly takes on the season's meanings in one article about Jesus and another about dying.


Every December, it seems, the chorus of complaints about Christmas gets louder: We exhaust ourselves preparing for it; we've commercialized it such that it's lost its meaning. The Atlantic Monthly, always eager to give us something to think about, answers those voices by putting Jesus himself on the cover.

What Charlotte Allen has to say about him, though, might surprise a few readers. In the dense, at times tortuous prose of a scholar, Allen shows us what Christian theologians have been up to recently as they've probed the origins of their religion. At the heart of this inquiry is a raging argument over a first-century text, called "Q," that many believe was the basis of the Gospels. But because Q contains only Jesus' teachings and says nothing about crucifixion or resurrection, these scholars believe that Q's authors looked on Jesus simply as a wandering wise man and not the Messiah.

Burton L. Mack, one of the Q proponents, claims that since there's no record in the text about how Jesus died, the Passion narrative of the Gospels is a fiction. "We've had enough apocalypses," Allen quotes Mack. "We've had enough martyrs. Christianity has had a two-thousand-year run, and it's over."

Now there's some premillennial food for thought. What's to become of Christmas?

December is also a month for endings, and the Atlantic observes this with an arresting first-person piece by Michael Davitt Bell. Dying of cancer, Bell takes us to the precipice, examining his mortality -- and, by extension, our own -- in terms of etiquette. How do we talk about it? Bell professes a happiness, "even euphoria," over the honesty he has forged, both with others and with himself, about his illness. This openness has allowed him to become more purely himself as the end approaches: "I want the story of my dying, however painful and disgusting it may be, to be my story, my 'scenario,' at least as much as possible. After all, it's the only story I have left."

Mailer on Mailer

Norman Mailer has been accused of many things, but modesty will never be one of them. In the January George, he dances in his own klieg lights as he recaps the presidential election, inserting himself -- in the third person -- into his narrative. In an extended movie metaphor, Mailer dubs Dole the leading man and Clinton the star, but there's never any doubt here whom he considers the true star.

"He had never taken an assignment as a reporter without looking to give himself a name," begins the article. "A new role demanded a novel tag. Now, he had two, Dean and Neophyte. He decided, of course, on Dean. He was, after all, the dean of political correspondents on every plane -- always the oldest man aboard. Yet when it came to knowledge of how to cover a presidential campaign, it was fair to call him a neophyte." It goes on like that.

The Dean writes long, vapid passages summarizing the debates, observing Dole's fatigue and pondering whom to vote for. The story is almost as boring as the race was. But we do get the occasional insight, which reminds us why Mailer has gotten where he has: "If we are a great nation, which we are always being told every day and in every way, why then must we, like spoiled children, keep hearing these endless repetitions of our worth when our real need may be to comprehend that greatness is not a stable condition of existence, but rather, like love, has to be re-created over and over." Mailer might consider taking his own words to heart.

People en Espanol

In its quest to reach everybody, People magazine has done its demographic homework and introduced a version for the growing Spanish-speaking population. People en Espanol premiered in October with an issue on "Las 10 Estrellas Latinas del Momento" (the 10 hottest Latin stars), among them Gloria Estefan, Antonio Banderas and Jimmy Smits. People en Espanol will come out quarterly in '97 -- in March, May, September and November -- with themed issues akin to the English-language version: "before they were famous," "the most beautiful people," "best and worst dressed" -- you get the picture.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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