What Stories Illumine Our Imaginations at Christmastide and Beyond?

A representation of Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus riding in his chariot. Mosaic of the 3rd century on the Vatican grottoes under St. Peter's Basilica.
A representation of Jesus as the sun-god Helios/Sol Invictus riding in his chariot. Mosaic of the 3rd century on the Vatican grottoes under St. Peter’s Basilica.

What stories illumine our imaginations and shape our lives during Christmastide, the New Year, and beyond? Is it the story of the Sun God? Is it the biblical story of creation and the Son of God? Is it the story of Evolution? Is it the story of the Market? Something else, something more?

Why the Sun God, you might ask? It was at this time of year that many ancient peoples celebrated the god Saturn as well as the Sun. According to Andrew McGowan of Yale Divinity School,

“The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25.”

As to a possible connection between these celebrations and the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth, McGowan notes,

“Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.”

McGowan goes on to address the problems with this theory. I encourage the reader to engage his full article, “How December 25 Became Christmas” (See also the following article: “Why December 25?”). Regardless of your conclusion on the subject, December 25 and the surrounding season are important to Pagans (Refer here, here, and here) and Christians, both old and new.

For faithful Christians, the birth and life of Jesus signify the God of creation breaking in to redeem and transform the world, removing sin and bringing new life. In contrast, for many financially framed people where free market economics dominates their imaginations, Christmas highlights the busiest shopping season of the year. And then there are those captured by certain evolutionary models that reduce everything to materialistic phenomena. What might the notions of natural selection and survival of the fittest entail for the long-held Christian belief in an omnipotent, omniscient, and ever-present, compassionate God? What happens to Christian charity at Christmas time? Coupled with free market ideology, does homo sapiens give way to homo economicus (the economic creature) and homo consumens (the consuming creature) who is homo dominans (the dominant or dominating/ruling creature)? (Refer here and here for related discussions).

I am most concerned for how I as a Christian, and fellow Christians, frame life during Christmastide, the New Year, and beyond: what story captivates our imaginations? In his discussion of creation, evolution and free markets, and how Evangelicals see the world, Gordon Bigelow writes,

“Economics, as channeled by its popular avatars in media and politics, is the cosmology and the theodicy of our contemporary culture. More than religion itself, more than literature, more than cable television, it is economics that offers the dominant creation narrative of our society, depicting the relation of each of us to the universe we inhabit, the relation of human beings to God. And the story it tells is a marvelous one. In it an enormous multitude of strangers, all individuals, all striving alone, are nevertheless all bound together in a beautiful and natural pattern of existence: the market. This understanding of markets—not as artifacts of human civilization but as phenomena of nature—now serves as the unquestioned foundation of nearly all political and social debate” (Gordon Bigelow, “Let There Be Markets: The Evangelical Roots of Economics,” Harper’s 310, no. 1860 (May 2005): 33).

If Bigelow is correct, what does that mean for how Christians in North America like myself view the story of redemption? What really ‘illumines’ our imaginations and shapes our lives? Maybe we are not so unlike the rich young ruler who wanted to work or possibly even buy his way to salvation rather than to look to Jesus as his salvation: “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (See Matthew 19:16; ESV). Do we subtly or unsubtly view salvation as doing business in a religious stock exchange or shopping mall? Is our assurance of salvation the accumulation of religious assets and wealth? Or, if we construe the matter more in keeping with Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, perhaps we see God as a divine butler and cosmic therapist who exists to do our bidding and makes us happy as long as we do our fair share of good deeds. And what happens if God does not make us happy, as we define happiness? Head back to the store for a refund or gift exchange?

In closing, I wish to draw our attention to an early Christian figure, Clement of Alexandria, who is considered a church father in various circles. Clement defined happiness and satisfaction quite differently than many of us do today. For him, Jesus truly is the reason for the season, indeed all seasons, as the Sun of Righteousness who illumines open hearts and imaginations, and shapes their lives. Note how Clement commandeers the Pagan emphasis on the Sun in his take on Christian salvation in the Exhortation to the Heathen, chapter 11: “How Great Are the Benefits Conferred on Man through the Advent of Christ”:

“For ‘the Sun of Righteousness,’ who drives His chariot over all, pervades equally all humanity, like ‘His Father, who makes His sun to rise on all men,’ and distils on them the dew of the truth. He has changed sunset into sunrise, and through the cross brought death to life; and having wrenched man from destruction, He has raised him to the skies, transplanting mortality into immortality, and translating earth to heaven — He, the husbandman of God, ‘Pointing out the favourable signs and rousing the nations to good works, putting them in mind of the true sustenance;’ having bestowed on us the truly great, divine, and inalienable inheritance of the Father, deifying man by heavenly teaching, putting His laws into our minds, and writing them on our hearts. What laws does He inscribe? ‘That all shall know God, from small to great;’ and, ‘I will be merciful to them,’ says God, ‘and will not remember their sins’ (Hebrews 8:10-12; Jeremiah 31:33-34). Let us receive the laws of life, let us comply with God’s expostulations; let us become acquainted with Him, that He may be gracious. And though God needs nothing let us render to Him the grateful recompense of a thankful heart and of piety, as a kind of house-rent for our dwelling here below….”

As the Son races across the heavens, will we receive him again and again so that his light breaks in through the windows of our hearts and illumines our imaginations? Or will other stories shape our lives in the coming days and year ahead?

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