Surrendering the “War on Christmas”

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.

American Atheists Anti-Christmas Billboard

American Atheists Anti-Christmas Billboard. Source: www.atheists.org

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.”

Catholic League Pro-Christmas Billboard

Catholic League Pro-Christmas Billboard. Source: www.catholicleague.org

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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 15th, 2010 at 7:49 pm. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

13 Responses to “Surrendering the “War on Christmas””

  1. Linda Lavender Says:

    Great thoughts Jeremy….Wayne and I laughed the other day when we saw the “Outside Decorating Wars” occurring outside with our neighbors that Christmas is dead…not the Christ – but Christmas. What I find so amusing is that the corporations got a hold of it a generation or so ago…and we are all so deeply sleepwalking through life we are just making an issue of it now….

    Merry Christmas to you and your family!

  2. Brian Gumm - Restorative Theology Says:

    Lovely post, Jeremy! Your snarkiness gives way to a pastoral concern and a call to faithfulness that is right and good. In your critique, you’re concretely illustrating what James Davison Hunter helps us see, which I’ve recently tried to distill on the RT blog (shameless plug alert): http://restorativetheology.blogspot.com/2010/12/radical-biblical-and-cultural.html

  3. Tweets that mention Work and Hope » Surrendering the “War on Christmas” » Eastern Mennonite University -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Eastern Mennonite U., Brian Gumm. Brian Gumm said: An #anabaptist on: Surrendering the “War on Christmas” http://t.co/2s6V5um [...]

  4. Phil Kniss Says:

    How true, Jeremy! The Jesus most Christians are fighting to keep in Christmas is kind of like the Jesus in some front-yard manger scenes–hollow and plastic. As I plan to say in my sermon tomorrow — “They haven’t taken Christ out of Christmas! They’ve taken the radical gospel story of Christmas out of Christ.”

  5. Ethan Bodnaruk Says:

    I was planning to post on my own (tiny) blog about the very same thing! I thought the Catholic response was ridiculous, and that at least the atheists seem to have real points they are trying to make!

    What is your take, Jeremy, on the atheists’
    war against “intolerance and ignorance” of organized religion and
    against “unearned rights, unwarranted exclusivity, and unrighteous
    divisiveness.” ?

    I think one way to build bridges is to recognize that there are some very big issues with organized religion, the exclusivity of Christianity, lots of ignorance about what myth means. It should be ok for Christians to realize and admit that many of the stories in the bible are myth, but that they still mean something important, true, and life-changing. Anabaptists could potentially have a role to play in building understanding with atheists, and at the same time providing a better witness to the Christian church as a whole.

  6. Chris Says:

    I recently heard a comedian say, “if there’s a war on Christmas, I think Christmas is winning.” Of course he was referring to The Winter Festival of Warm Fuzzies and Conspicuous Consumption not the religious holiday.

  7. Carol Rose Says:

    I’ll join you surrendering the season… and keeping Jesus. Doing so may help me notice that there are some other holidays some of my neighbors are also celebrating during this very season. Mine is not the only one. Mine does not need to win. In fact it is not polite, and not a good witness to throw the most commercialized/culturally baggaged* view of Jesus in the face of my neighbors who do not share my faith, either by greetings that invisiblize their holidays or by other practices.

    *One example of the cultural baggage of racism: I notice that the picture of the “Pro-Christmas” billboard features white folk, rather than models with darker skin tones more likely to match that of Jesus.

  8. tom liddle Says:

    I clicked on your post thinking you were going to write about the “war on Christmas” being referred to in congress! Republicans accusing Democrats of waging war on Christmas and Democrats responding that they don’t need to be lectured about Christmas. The cultures’ bantering back and forth about the Christmas doesn’t bother me – using Christmas as a scapegoat preventing the advance of peace treaties (start) does!

  9. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard Says:

    Naming the “conspicuously consumeristic” nature of this season is certainly one of the most important things to point out to the embattled church. Christmas, as it is consumptively marketed and practiced but religiously interpreted and defended, is clearly illustrative of the innocuous therapeutic chaplain role that lap-dog Christianity has played for empire in the final century of American Christendom. We are lost in snide debates over the reality and “true” meaning of Christmas in the face of atheistic de-legitimation yet passively validate the much darker threats from market messaging.

    Brian, sorry I haven’t yet read your thoughts on Hunter and Rowe, but surely Rowe would point to the early church in Acts as a call to step away from our reactive demands that “culture affirm our religious faith” and instead focus with great intentionality on living a robust alternative. We reclaim the rightful “meaning” of the season through ecclesial practice, not cultural confrontation. In this case, that means doing what the church already has in its worship life: focus on somber Advent waiting and Epiphany celebration. Many of our churches focus on this already, but are perhaps not clear enough that Advent waiting and Epiphany incarnation are radical alternatives life to the consumer holidays currently and uncritically co-embraced by Christians, athiests and most other Westerners.

    Jeremy, your renaming of “warm-fuzzy” Christmas for what it is provides a necessary debunking of the imperial/market/christendom myth but we still need something newly named in this season for the church to live into. Surely Advent (and then Epiphany) are the proper re-namings of this season for the gathered Jesus community.

    Thanks for this evocative post.

  10. jwy523 Says:

    @ Ethan — I do think that the critics of Christianity have some valid concerns and one of the reasons that we’re entering this period of “post-Christiandom” is due to the mistakes and missteps of the Church over the past two thousand years.

    That being said, I think the original billboard by the American Atheists was about as obnoxious and ridiculous as the Catholic League’s response. The “Neo-Atheists” crowd prominently represented by Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris is a kind of fundamentalism of its own with its own sets of intolerances, ignorances and exclusivities. When the Neo-Atheists condemn organized Christianity, they are, after all, talking about us “tolerant” Christians as well.

    We do come from a faith that has some pretty exclusive claims about who Jesus Christ is and how God works in the world. It’s ok for us to recognize that those claims are going to be in tension with the pluralistic society we live in. It’s also ok to recognize that many of us are struggling with these tensions in ourselves. I believe the church must practice generosity and hospitality with our neighbors outside the faith. But I also think that we Christians should take our own faith seriously and not define our faith according to outside criticism and agendas. Whenever the Church has sought to “bridge” gaps by making the seeking to integrate the world’s ways into our own, the witness and life of the Church has suffered.

    While I do have some close friendships with atheists, I don’t really want to build bridges with atheists advocacy organizations. They think we Christians are delusional crazy people. How much are share story are we willing to give up to convince them we’re not?

  11. jwy523 Says:

    @Nicholas — Your comment about re-naming Christmas resonated with me. While I was researching the post, I came across a satiric essay by C.S. Lewis, “Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus” discussing this very problem. Lewis made the distinction between “Xmas” and “Chrissmas.” Perhaps that’s someplace to start.

  12. Caminando con el pueblo » ¿Feliz celebración invernal….? Says:

    [...] leí el blog de Jeremy Yoder ( http://emu.edu/blog/work-and-hope/2010/12/15/surrendering-the-war-on-christmas/) que me hizo reflexionar sobre el nacimiento de Jesús y él decidió rendir la época navideña al [...]

  13. Nicholas Detweiler-Stoddard Says:

    See EMU prof Heidi Miller Yoder’s comments on this subject (along with a diversity of others) in the New York Times’ “A Variety of Ways Not to Have Christmas”: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/25/us/25beliefs.html?_r=1&src=twrhp