Christmas Spirit and Ecclesia: What Christmas Movies Can Teach Us about the Church
But there's one popular form of American film where the concepts of belief and of fellowship (one of the earliest Greek names for the church is "koinonia," a fellowship or gathering of the like-minded) are powerfully expressed, and that is the Christmas movie. With the exception, perhaps, of It's a Wonderful Life, it's probably true that (as with most of popular films) we can't look to Christmas films for straightforward expositions of belief in God. It's also true that if we simply take things at face value, we'll end up with an odd understanding of faith. We've so badly confused God and Santa Claus that our Christmas films tend to be a theological mishmash. But all the same, even bad Hollywood Christmas movies show how important our culture finds some of the core components of faith and belief, and so I suggest we can draw valuable lessons from many of them.
I blame Charles Dickens for the current confused state of Christmas, and I'm not alone. Our friends the Puritans had cracked down on Christmas and some of its more festive elements, and even after they were gone and the prohibitions lifted in England and America, Christmas continued to be a somewhat muted celebration. But Charles Dickens, in a series of 19th-century Christmas tales that included "A Christmas Carol," re-popularized the celebration of Christmas in a big way, and in "A Christmas Carol" itself, he conflated Scrooge's story of redemption with his willingness to celebrate Christmas. In short, our inability in 21st-century American to sometimes tell the difference between Christian redemption and Christmas spirit comes to us directly from "A Christmas Carol."
Not that there's anything wrong with that. If the story shows us a grace-driven redemption through supernatural intervention that drives a self-centered lout like Scrooge to treat his neighbors with justice and give to the poor—which it does—then I'm okay with it. The shape of Scrooge's Christmas makeover is, at heart, the story of religious conversion. Perhaps the reason we're so drawn to Christmas films year after year is that consciously or unconsciously we understand that they are stories about salvation.
The shape of Scrooge's redemption should be very familiar to us through the many cinematic adaptations of the story (I'm particularly drawn to the Alistair Sim's A Christmas Carol and A Muppet Christmas Carol), and also through many other Christmas movies (not the least of which is It's a Wonderful Life), for at the heart of most of them is the central element of Christian faith: the necessity of belief. We could wish that more Christmas movies perceived the Christmas story to be an essential part of Christmas, and I do. Every Christmas since I was about six years old, I have choked up when Linus steps up into the spotlight and says, "Of course, Charlie Brown. I know the true meaning of Christmas. There were in those days, shepherds in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night..." But still, in a cynical, fast-paced, and overly practical society like ours, the willingness to believe takes us a long way in the right direction.
Americans tell pollsters that the vast majority of us believe in God, but what exactly does that mean? We may believe that there is a God, perhaps (as I like to say I believe in aluminum), but do the poll numbers suggest that our absolute faith is in God? Are we willing to live and die for that faith?
Greg Garrett is (according to BBC Radio) one of America's leading voices on religion and culture. He is the author or co-author of over twenty books of fiction, theology, cultural criticism, and spiritual autobiography. His most recent books are The Prodigal, written with the legendary Brennan Manning, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination, and My Church Is Not Dying: Episcopalians in the 21st Century. A contributor to Patheos since 2010, Greg also writes for the Huffington Post, Salon.com, OnFaith, The Tablet, Reform, and other web and print publications in the US and UK.