Like megachurches, homeschooling, and Tim Tebow, “Merry Christmas” has become a religio-cultural Rorschach test. If you prefer that department stores greet you with a “Merry Christmas,” or at least wish they didn’t feel compelled to adopt the anodyne “Happy Holidays,” chances are good you’re a conservative Christian of some stripe. If, on the other hand, you prefer to talk about how ridiculous it is that anyone should care how a department store greets them, or if you prefer to mock that concern and say that people who feel that concern should (a) get a life or (b) stop trying to impose their religion or (c) remember the true meaning of persecution, then chances are that you belong to that coalition of groups that tend to feel scorn for conservative Christians — which is to say atheists, progressive Christians, and other liberal religious groups such as New Agers, Neo-Pagans or “Nones”.
There were a couple examples of the latter at Patheos over the past month. James McGrath, a progressive Christian academic who blogs at Exploring Our Matrix (often a very funny blog), thought he’d flip the script by posting on “Christmas: The Christian ‘War on Solstice‘”. McGrath explains that he devoted a recent Sunday School class discussing “one of the great Christmas miracles: the fact that long ago Christians managed to ‘hijack’ the already-existing solstice festival, and turn it into a Christian celebration so thoroughly and so effectively that, more than a millennium and a half later, cultural Christians can complain about the ‘hijacking’ or ‘secularization’ of Christmas without any sense of irony.” (Apparently, the co-opting of a religious celebration by a very different set of Christians over 1500 years ago means that American Christians cannot show concern about the co-opting of their religious celebration today.) Since the Bible neither provides the date of Jesus’ birth nor enjoins the commemoration of it, and (McGrath says) Christmas is the result of taking a pagan holiday and transforming it into a Christian one…
…I find the complaining of cultural Christians in the United States about their beleaguered or persecuted status at Christmas time not only ironic, but tedious and even offensive. The earliest Christians lived in a world where the issue was not the failure of salespeople to wish them a merry Christmas, but rather their own failure to participate in dominant cultural and religious rituals. The issue for the earliest Christians was not whether one could display a nativity scene on government property, but that every city where Christianity spread featured prominent displays of deities whom the Christians would refuse to worship, sometimes at the cost of their lives. That was persecution, not the fact that someone wishes you “Happy Holidays” – especially when that person would probably not be considered a true Christian anyway by born-again believers.
Further swipes at “cultural Christians” and “born again Christians” are scattered throughout the post. He recommends “ceasing the ridiculous habit of complaining about what others do or do not wish you,” and condemns these same cultural Christians for (he assumes) indulging in the same consumerist, materialistic frenzy that Christmas has become for the culture as a whole. In fact, he issues a pretty sweeping judgment on this score: “If your Christian faith is about what you wish others and what you demand that they wish you, and not also about what you spend and what you spend your money on, then I would suggest that you have only a veneer of Christianity spread over cultural values that are not specifically Christian, and which you share with most other people in your historical and national context.” He closes with another judgment upon the banality and superficiality of such cultural Christianity.
Putting aside for the moment the superficiality of McGrath’s own rendering of the origins of Christmas–there are various theories on the origins of Christmas, and the solstice (as well as various other pagan festivals that have been suggested) quite possibly had nothing to do with it–what concerns me more is the absence of any attempt to understand the concerns of his more-conservative brethren charitably.
Ironically, a Neo-Pagan author named P. Sufenas Virius Lupus shows more sympathetic imagination, although it’s wrapped in the same bitter scorn sandwich. When the ancient pagans persecuted the early Christians, this conferred upon us a “persecution complex” for the ages. [If you'll pardon a digression: Lupus says Christians were put to death for being "unpatriotic" and refusing "to participate in a token fashion in the rituals of state." I'm not a specialist here, but this seems absurd. Christians were persecuted for many reasons. They were blamed (almost certainly falsely) and treated monstrously for Nero's fire (Lupus suggests that, even if they did not start the fire, they probably did nothing to stop it because all they cared about was heaven, or something), they were attacked by rival sects, clergy were imprisoned or put to death for promoting a forbidden religion, and Christian practices were outright banned. They were beaten, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, crucified, even roast inside a giant bronze bull (an imitation of Phalaris' legendary instrument of torture, for classical history buffs). Yes, Christians refused to offer sacrifices or burn incense to the Roman gods for the sake of the Emperor, but that's because they understood the seriousness of worship and fealty. Lupus suggests that what Christians refused to do was basically the same as "standing with one's hand over one's heart during the Pledge of Allegiance." But covering your heart during the Pledge of Allegiance does not require Christians to recognize or honor other gods, and thus betray their most central beliefs.]
Yes, the Christians who were once persecuted by pagans and Jews became the persecutors of pagans and Jews. This was common in the ancient world, but still shameful. Lupus finishes:
You cannot rightly claim to be in the position of a persecuted minority any longer; you have, more often than not, been the persecutors for the last 1650 years or so. For those of us who are not of your belief system, we have no interest in “dying for” our religion, because we value life and wish to have it in abundance, here, in this very good and beautiful, though flawed, world. For us, martyrdom is not a virtue nor an ideal. For us, who are now in the position that your spiritual ancestors were when your religion emerged, would you act in ways towards us that you still execrate the Romans for nearly two millennia later? “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” indeed…
I don’t know if I would liken the present-day circumstances of American Neo-Pagans with those of the early Christians who were slaughtered in arenas, but, again, there’s more than a whiff of mockery for Christians feeling “persecuted” by the mis-appropriation of one of their holiest holidays. Is this fair? Four thoughts:
FIRST, If Christians complaining about “Happy Holidays” have likened this to persecution, I’ve never seen it. There may be outliers. But as a general rule, we know very well the difference between hearing “Happy Holidays” and being thrown to the lions, thank you very much. I imagine that Professor McGrath, in his classes, would encourage his students to take on the strongest representation of a viewpoint they want to critique. (I know I did with my students.) But McGrath, Lupus and their ilk are taking on a weak, caricatured version of this concern. Note that they do not cite an actual Christian leader making this argument, and lay out the argument; they just head straight for their caricatures and proceed to mock and lecture them.
SECOND, if conservative Christians who lament the displacement of “Merry Christmas” and other trappings of traditional Christmas celebration are not claiming that they’re being persecuted, what exactly are they claiming? Well, you wouldn’t know it from McGrath’s or Lupus’ entries, but the concerns are generally (1) the eviction of the sacred from the public square and (2) the marginalization of Christianity in a nation that was built upon it. For example, I posted a guest post from Ravi Zacharias on Christmas Eve. Zacharias explains that he takes no offense when he visits a Hindu, Buddhist or Muslim nation — even if its form of government is secular — and finds the people celebrating their religious holidays in public. When he came to the United States, he was “thrilled to see Christmas celebrated and the reason for the season so obvious: the birth of Jesus Christ.” He knew not every American was Christian, but “expected the charitable heart of even the dissenter to allow that which has been practiced in this country historically and traditionally to continue.” Alas, however, it is no longer so. Now the Judeo-Christian “worldview, on which our systems of government and law are based, is expelled from the marketplace.” This concerns Dr. Zacharias, because “Democracies that are unhinged from all sacred moorings ultimately sink under the brute weight of conflicting egos.”
THIRD, in other words, this is not about persecution. This is about the wrong-headed notion that a form of government that honors the non-establishment and free exercises clauses requires us to eliminate any signs that Christianity is somehow exceptional in American history, society and culture. The soldier in the “War on Christmas” is less concerned that he hears “Happy Holidays” than he is by the fact the department store feels compelled to avoid “Merry Christmas.” Put differently, this is about the secularization of something Christians consider holy (and yes, Christians protest the commercialization of Christmas just as much, in fact far more), and the militant expulsion of robustly Christian elements of American culture, elements that were long celebrated in this country, from the public square. These are legitimate concerns. Most Christians believe that seeding a culture with teachings and traditions and stories that uphold what is True and encourage what is Good and Beautiful will have a nurturing, restorative effect upon that culture. And many American Christians believe that a Democratic system of government, and even a free market economy, built upon the principles of God-given rights and freedoms, necessarily rests upon, and flourishes with, the principles and virtues those teachings, traditions and stories confer. Withdrawing the “salt,” the preservative power of Christian teachings from the culture, will only hasten its disintegration.
FOURTH, however, I wonder whether we’ve reached the point where the pretense that America is still a Christian culture, or the attempt to conserve it as such, is better let go. To be honest, I go back and forth on this. I believe in being a Christian conservationist, in preserving and nurturing within our culture and society the things that are good and true and redemptive. The trappings of Christian faith can have a beneficent effect upon the culture when they spring from communities devoted wholeheartedly to the essence of Christian faith. There are places (I would define them quite locally) where this is still the case in America. But it’s hard to say anymore that mainstream American culture as a whole is Christian. And when that’s the case, the cultural trappings are just that: trappings, the paraphernalia of a now-departed faith, and they’re generally conscripted into the service of idols. When that is so, when the salt has really lost its saltiness, then it’s better dispensed with.
I sense that McGrath is trying to get to this point, but his prejudices get in the way. It’s facile, and false, to dismiss conservative Christians or born-agains as “cultural Christians.” That’s not the point. The point is that cultural Christendom — by which I mean not a particular, political subgroup of Christians I dislike, but the cultural trappings of our Christian heritage — may have to die before essential Christianity can find new life. When people go through the motions, when their faith becomes empty repetition, or if they reach the point where their faith is more about the cultural artifacts they surround themselves with — what they read or watch or listen to — and not a living encounter with Jesus Christ, then it’s better to give up the pretense that it’s “Christian” altogether.
Zacharias actually shares this perspective. “Maybe someday we will thank the rabid secularists as well,” he writes, “when ‘Merry Christmas’ will no longer be forbidden in our cities. Exhausted and disappointed in self-worship, we may turn to God again and hear his story afresh.” Maybe we have to become an un-Christian society before we can become a Christian one again — or maybe, at least, authentically Christian communities can best rise up and flourish in a culture that is clear again on what is Christian and what is not.
Maybe. What do you think?