There’s no typo in that title. It’s a play on the effort by some Christians to fight the secularization of the winter holiday season in the broader culture, and particularly their slogan, “Let’s put ‘Christ’ back in Christmas.” And I totally stole that title, though I can’t figure out the original source.
It seems like every year in recent memory when we come around to this time of year, some new ‘scandal’ erupts as further evidence for some supposed insidious and ongoing “War on Christmas.” Recently it has been Starbucks that has faced the ire of the culture warriors. Last year people were outraged that the coffee chain chose plain red cups for the holiday season where previously they had had a Christmas tree. And the controversy is back again this year: a pair of cartoon hands holding each other on the holiday edition cup is seen as clear evidence by some as part of Starbucks’ “gay agenda,” (?) and yet another chance to become indignant and alarmist about how badly Christians are being treated these days. A survey from last February revealed that a certain sub-group of Christians, white evangelicals, believe that Christians face greater discrimination in the United States these days than do Muslims. Fifty seven percent of them thought so, as compared with an overall average of 2 to 1 (67%) in the general population believing Muslims face more discrimination than Christians. This distinct subset of the population seems to long for the days when “Merry Christmas” was the only greeting people shared at this time of year, and Christianity was the assumed religion of the “ordinary” American and our leaders. When Christianity, in other words, was just a regular, default part of the culture. And now that Christianity is becoming just one alternative among many, including no religion at all, equality feels like oppression to those who are accustomed to privilege. (Another quote I stole!)
It just so happens that in the past couple of days I have been reviewing the controversy around the release of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a movie set at the time of the New Testament that spoofed the behavior and attitudes of religious people. I was a high school student at the time, and already a fan of the (mostly) British comedy team, and particularly their previous film, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a spoof of the legend of King Arthur. When Life of Brian came out there was a wave of protest by conservative Christian type, both in the U.K. and the U.S., who considered any humorous treatment of biblical subject matter to be blasphemous. I went to and opening night screening with my father, a Lutheran pastor and high school religion teacher, and we were met by protestors who tried to discourage us from seeing the movie. “Have you seen it?” my dad asked them. They admitted that they hadn’t. “We’ll make up our own minds,” he told them. This experience, and the film itself, led to good conversations with my father about the nature of the Christian faith. He was able to articulate that Life of Brian did indeed make fun of Christians, but who says Christians can’t be made fun of – especially when they’re being sanctimonious and hypocritical? But at the same time, from his point of view there was nothing blasphemous at all in the movie. Jesus himself appears only at the very beginning, and he is played in a completely conventional way, in the style of any number of Christian movies of the time. To this day this film remains one of my favorites, and the controversy around it continues to be a good conversation starter for the relationship of Christianity and culture.
Has Christianity lost some of its cultural influence in recent decades? Some, to be sure. Does admitting to being a Christian elicit suspicion and even hostility in some circles? No doubt about it. Has Christian behavior in the public arena honored Christ and Christian principles? I’d say it’s been a mixed bag, but the loudest and most visible part in the mix in recent times has, in my opinion, been a negative witness to the faith that is ostensibly being defended.
What is to be our public witness? Have a look at Acts 17:16-34 for a good example set by Paul. And then read Paul’s letter to the Philippians, particularly this famous section:
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5-8)
It’s that Christ that needs to be put back in Christians, not an assertion of our rights and privileges in the cultural marketplace. That won’t make us immune from persecution, but at least then we’d be persecuted for our actual faith. The real Christ of Christmas came among us as one of us, to share our nature and our lot, and to usher in the Reign of God not by coercion, but by humility and love. Let’s be those kinds of Christians this Christmas, and throughout the years to come.
+ Pastor Repp