Posts Tagged 'engaging the world'

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible” (updated)

reportcard.jpgSo, the good news is that for all of my handwringing about Greek this semester, it wound up being more of a bright spot on my transcript than I would have thought. It’s still a variety of “B” rather than a variety of “A”, but it’s a better variety than I figured possible, and it’s certainly not a variety of “C”. I’m still probably going to try to sit in on third semester Greek again next fall as a refresher (since, because of scheduling issues, I can’t take the fourth semester until next year), but the unmitigated disaster I was convinced was inevitable on Wednesday afternoon appears to have been nonetheless avoided.

unchristmas.gifThere’s an article in the Associated Press about Protestants who don’t celebrate Christmas (hat tip: Dr. Philip Blosser), and it provides an interesting overview of the history of Christmas celebrations in the United States. In a nutshell, Protestant America was at best uncomfortable with and at worst hostile towards Christmas until the 19th century, when it shifted towards being more of a secular, family holiday and less of a religious observance associated with Catholics. In other words, it was largely because it took on commercial aspects (at least according to this piece) that its liturgical trappings were tolerated. Still, despite this “domestication,” certain Protestant groups retain the objection into our own time:

Christians like the United Church of God reject the holiday [because they] say divine instruction, rather than culture and society, should determine whether the holiday is appropriate.

“It’s common knowledge that Christmas and its customs have nothing to do with the Bible,” said Clyde Kilough, president of the United Church of God, which has branches all over the world. “The theological question is quite simple: Is it acceptable to God for humans to choose to worship him by adopting paganism’s most popular celebrations and calling them Christian?”

I have to say, there’s a part of me that has absolutely no problem with this attitude. What reason do Christians who reject the liturgical calendar as a whole have to keep Christmas as an observance? Aren’t they trying to have it both ways? Here’s the follow-up question, though—do these same groups reject Easter? If not, why not? It seems to me they’d have to, to stay consistent.

Here’s what is, for me, the money quote:

[T]he mainline Protestant churches have learned to accommodate Christmas. But the change came from the pews rather than the pulpit.

Christmas benefited from a 19th century “domestication of religion,” said University of Texas history professor Penne Restad, in which faith and family were intertwined in a complementary set of values and beliefs.

Christmas became acceptable as a family-centered holiday, Restad said, once it lost its overtly religious significance.

At the same time, aspects of the holiday like decorated trees and gift-giving became status symbols for an aspirant middle class. When Christmas began its march toward dominance among holidays, it was because of a change in the culture, not theology.

“In America, the saying is that the minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister,” Restad said. “This was more of a sociological change than a religious one. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church (emphasis mine).”

The minister follows the people, the people don’t follow the minister. The home and the marketplace had more sway than the church. That’s a mouthful, folks, and one that strikes me as bearing some real consideration.

All that said, I have to say I’d love for the guys at Get Religion to offer their thoughts on this story; I’m sure there’s a lot here I’m missing.

UPDATE: Fr. Stephen Freeman has some words which are directly applicable to the matter at hand:

…[T]radition is not only normal – it is inevitable… We cannot, without great violence, declare that there will be no traditions. This has been sought through the centuries by various iconoclast regimes (Puritans come to mind the easiest). But they never completely succeed. Today, the descendants of Puritans will seek Christmas trees whether they believe in God or not. The tradition is stronger even than the belief. But the tradition wasn’t given in order to destroy the belief, but to live it out.

“…prepare yourself for the opportunities it presents”

Darrell Bock at Christianity Today posted an article today entitled, When the Media Became a Nuisance: How to respond to the next blockbuster book/documentary/movie that questions traditional Christianity. He makes points similar to mine about the Gospel of Judas fiasco, essentially saying that commercial media and serious scholarship don’t mix terribly well—but also saying we need to get used to it and adapt:

We need to understand that public discussion of the Christian faith has changed—permanently. So the next time you hear an earth-shattering announcement about Jesus from the media, don’t get angry. Rather, take three deep breaths, sit down with your Starbucks coffee, and watch how the announcement is treated on blogs and other media. Above all, prepare yourself for the opportunities it presents.

One of the main opportunities he posits, and I wholeheartedly agree with this, is the opportunity for Christians to really educate ourselves about our history and our origins. If someone comes up to us and starts talking about the Gospel of Judas and we’re able to tell them about how St. Ireneaus of Lyons was arguing against this document back in the late second century, and then explain who St. Ireneaus was and who the Cainites were and why we care about what St. Irenaeus had to say about them, that’s going to be a much more powerful answer to somebody than just, “Well, that’s not what my Bible says so it has to be wrong.”

And make no mistake—we’ve got to know our stuff better than the people who want their name on the next Newsweek cover story, and that’s true at every level. I have to know, for example, what Nestorius said better than somebody who would claim that Nestorius was simply persecuted by the institutional church (and I don’t—this is why I’m going to grad school). If I don’t, I’m gonna get my lunch eaten, and it’s going to be a poor witness for the faith. (Maybe not as bad as claiming that nothing predates Christianity, but still not good.) I’m sure we all know people by this point who think that the Council of Nicea decided on what counted as Scripture by taking a vote and burning everything that didn’t make the cut; we’ve got to be able to answer that, clearly, authoritatively, and lovingly, in a post-Da Vinci Code world.

Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrman, Marcus Borg, and John Crossan are on speed-dial for anybody in the media covering stories like this. It’s not that there aren’t necessarily good reasons for this; there is good scholarship that has come out of all of them—the problem is balance. If we can actually take advantage of the opportunity to engage people and interest them in real Christian history and not the Enquirer version, if we can get them interested in J. N. D. Kelly’s or Jaroslav Pelikan’s version rather than Dan Brown’s, then maybe eventually Susan Ashbrook Harvey or Fr. John Behr or Dn. John Chryssavgis can get on the “to call” list as well—but we have to educate ourselves. Ignorance won’t give us credibility. We have to engage from an informed stance.


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