December 15th, 2010 – by Jeremy W. Yoder, Editors Blog
It’s become a Christmas tradition — each year the cultural warriors spread good cheer and the love of Christ by bitterly complaining about the secularization of the Christmas. Leading the charge in past years have been the elves at Fox News, who argue that the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” and the removal of traditional seasonal symbols like the Christmas tree represent the liberal onslaught against religion in the public sphere. And while it’s easy to make fun, pundits like Bill O’Reilly or Gretchen Carlson bring voice to the old anxiety that Christianity is losing its prominent cultural place in American society.
The front line of the “war” this season has not been Fox News, but rather dueling billboards at the Lincoln Tunnel between Manhattan and New Jersey. In November, American Atheists put up a billboard on the New Jersey side featuring the nativity and calling it a myth. According to their website, the group sees this campaign not as a “war” on Christmas, but rather a war against “intolerance and ignorance” of organized religion and against “unearned rights, unwarranted exclusivity, and unrighteous divisiveness.”
Not to be outdone, the Catholic League responded by posting their own pro-Christmas billboard on the New York side of the tunnel. In their press release, the League claims their billboard is “positive, and services the common good” while the atheist billboard is “negative, and is designed to sow division.” In fact, the League proclaims that the entire point of this “counterpunch” is to soothe the tender sensitivities of offended Christians –
So after Christian motorists have had their sensibilities assaulted as they exit New Jersey, they will experience a sense of joy, and satisfaction, as they enter New York City.
Personally, I think the New York City traffic will do more to assault my sensibilities than any billboard, but what do I know? Perhaps we should be upset that Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade doesn’t float a baby Jesus balloon down Seventh Ave.
Okay… so it’s easy for me to get snarky about these kinds of culture war fights. As an Anabaptist, I don’t really care whether the surrounding culture affirms my religious faith or not. I actually think that the historic privilege of Christianity in America has made us American Christians as a group pretty lazy. We expect the culture to do the heavy lifting for us, since it’s much easier to believe (or to go through the motions of belief) when the dominant culture affirms and celebrates those beliefs. It costs more to believe in God when the surrounding culture doesn’t understand or support those beliefs.
Yet while I don’t see myself as a partisan of the culture war, I am concerned how fighting this war hurts the life and witness of the Church. These billboards are like the Soviets and Americans blasting propaganda at each other across the Berlin Wall — obnoxious and unlikely to change anyone’s heart or mind. Much of our civil discourse in America has been reduced to screaming at each other. Does the Church benefit or hurt itself by participating in this shouting match? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bring our faith to the public sphere, but it does mean that we practice discernment on how we do it — a Jesus billboard doesn’t mean a Christian culture.
So…I surrender Christmas. I even have a new name for it — The Winter Festival of Warm Fuzzies and Conspicuous Consumption. Other than being hard to rhyme in a song, I think my new name is closer to how most people experience the holiday. Who cares whether the advertising calls it a ‘Holiday Sale’ or a ‘Christmas Sale’ — isn’t the fact that there is a sale at all a sign that something sacred and holy has been lost? Forget progressive conspiracies — are we trying to defend turf that has long been lost to the forces of consumerism?
The remembrance of Jesus Christ’s birth is the traditional beginning of the high point of the Christian calender. During the next several months, we will remember the life and ministry of Jesus, climaxing in the death and resurrection of Christ. As we anticipate the birth of Jesus, I pray that regardless of whatever thunderings go on about religion and the public sphere, that the Church can continue to remember the story that we seek to live out as a faith community — just as we remember Christ’s first coming, we anticipate for his return.
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