Should Christians take offense when the signs say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”? If not, how can Christians cope with a rapidly secularizing public square?
In this episode of Signposts I talk about what is and what is not evidence of a transforming culture, and the right way Christians ought to respond to both.
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Below is an edited transcript of the audio.
I found myself really, really irritated one day. I was on a plane, and they had one of those airline magazines, and I was flipping through it, and there was an advertisement from Budweiser, I think, one of the beer companies, that had the headline, “Silent nights are overrated.” And then I flipped the page a couple more pages through, and there was an advertisement for this really expensive, high-end, outdoor grill, and it says, “Who says it’s better to give then to receive?” And my response is Jesus is the one who says it’s better to give than to receive! And I was really irritated because I just sat there and thought you know, would they put an ad in their airlines in the Islamic world during Ramadan that says, “Fasting is overrated” or, you know, put something in one of their airlines in India that says, “Who says everything is one with the universe?” And I thought, you know, why would they do that with us? And the issue was that I was totally missing the point, and I was seeing things out of perspective because I was taking a kind of personal offense at these issues rather than seeing the bigger picture.
Now, as you know, I think we have tremendous problems when it comes to a militant kind of secularization with some of the church-state questions that the late Richard John Neuhaus used to call “the naked public square,” but I think that this outrage that we are expressing toward the commercial marketplace sometimes is overblown. We see things as persecution, that really aren’t. Sometimes there are. You know, sometimes we do see situations of a school system penalizing a child for writing “Merry Christmas” instead of saying that this is a holiday card. But the huffing and puffing that we tend to do when marketers don’t get our Christian commitments is, I think, a little bit off base.
First of all, I think we need to keep in mind most of these issues that we take offense at are done by corporations, and these corporations are trying to sell products. They are really not trying to offend constituencies. It really isn’t good business to go out of your way to offend
constituencies. That’s not good economics at all for anybody. And I think the problem is with those ads that really got me upset, I am willing to bet that whoever came up with these ad campaigns didn’t even know that they were making fun of Jesus Christ and of the birth in Bethlehem in the case of Silent Night or with Jesus’ statement that Paul records in his letter to the Corinthians that it is better to give than to receive. They just know we’ve heard it’s better to give than to receive, probably something from Benjamin Franklin or somewhere. We know Silent Night, that’s a Christmas carol that people sing. They didn’t trace that through I’ll bet. They just know it’s just part of the background music. And so for them, it probably is the same as saying something about decking the halls or reindeer games or Heat Miser and Snow Miser, any other kind of Christmas background music that’s around there. And so, it’s just people who don’t get all of that because they are living in a time in American culture that is much more secularized.
So, our response to that I think ought not to be a sense of outrage as though we’re victims. I think instead we ought to say okay, this tells us that our culture is less and less connected with the more basic roots of Christianity, and many, especially in the culture-making sort of sectors in American life, see Christmas kind of the same way that most Americans see Hanukah. We know about—we know what a menorah is. We know what dreidels are, but most people don’t really know about the Maccabean fight. They don’t really know about the miraculous provision of oil to the Maccabeans. They don’t know the background story there. And that ought not to make us angry. It instead ought to say let’s take the opportunity to understand our neighbors here and understand that they see us, when they think of us and when they think of Christmas, they think about it more in terms of the trivialities than they do in terms of incarnation and blood atonement and the kingdom that dawned there in Bethlehem. So, they know about Silent Night like they know about Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer, and they don’t see just how momentous it is to say Emmanuel, God is with us.
And so, I think that ought to tell us we need to spend some more time engaging our neighbors with exactly why the incarnation is good news, why the incarnation is scary news, why Herod receives this as bad news, and if you think about it, the Christmas message really is one that if it is really understood, it just doesn’t fit with all the trivial trappings of the holidays anyway. It’s much, much stranger than that, and I think that’s a good thing. We ought to embrace the strangeness at Christmas and all year round because frankly, a gospel at Christmas or any other time that is safe enough to sell beer and barbecue grills isn’t the kind of gospel that is going to be able to make blessings flow far as the curse is found, as Isaac Watts put it.
And so I think we ought to, when we think about this war on Christmas, we shouldn’t turn this into a fight for our right to party. I think instead we ought to remind ourselves that we live in, as every other generation before us has done, what Isaiah in Isaiah 9 calls a land of deep darkness. That’s what he said would settle over Galilee of the Gentiles. And we need to remember that that darkness isn’t overcome by sarcasm or personal offense or retaliatory insults or boycotts of Wal- Mart or whatever it is. The light of Bethlehem shines in the darkness, and that’s what we need to recover in our churches, in our families, in our communities.