I work at a church. This means that I know a lot of Christians. In fact, despite my best intentions, it seems that most of the people I’m facebook friends with profess the Christian faith. Some of them are youth that I’ve worked with. Some of them are people I’ve gone to church with. Some of them are friends/acquaintances from school. You get the idea. The upshot is this: I get more trite, Christiany pictures and statuses popping up in my feed before 9 am than most people get in a week. Honestly, some of them I appreciate. Some are inspiring. Some are insipid. Some are just wrong, and make us all look really, really dumb. If that offends my Christian friends, I’ll borrow a page from a mom that I know and say this, just as she does when talking to all her kids at the same time: I’m telling this to all of you. If you feel that it applies to you, then take it to heart. If you feel that it doesn’t, then assume that I’m not talking to you.
Just so we’re perfectly clear, this is not on the good side of Christiany posts.
I’m going to come at this from a couple of angles: First, why you really shouldn’t ever say this or post it. Second, how it came to be, and why it’s less stupid than I make it out to be in the first part. Confused yet? Read on.
Jesus is not the reason for the season. He’s not. Take a deep breath. The athiests are right. The festive season around this time of year was around long before Jesus. It spans cultures, not in terms of people trying to steal the Christ from your Christmas, but in terms of completely unrelated religious beliefs. Why would all these other religions–the pagans, the mystics, the tribal spiritists, whatever–want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, you ask? Because it’s not. And most of you know that. It’s one of the worst kept secrets in Christendom, and one of the dumbest myths that we perpetuate to our children. Best guess, Jesus was born in September. Beyond that, even if he was born on December 25th, why would people have been celebrating that before the nativity came to pass?
I know people that have had a “house of cards” faith (refer to the earlier “mom phrase”). They’re not Christians any more. What I mean by “house of cards,” is that as they came up in the church, people fed them certainties. They were taught things, perpetuated in the church, that sounded good but had little theological or historical basis. Like Jesus’ birthday. They then went out into the “real world,” and cards started getting flicked. Things like the Christmas story were called into question as people said to them, “did you know that Christmas is actually the pagan festival of Saturnalia?” and they responded “NO! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!”
They had two choices: bury their head in the sand or find out the truth – that people celebrated this time of year because in agrarian cultures, this was downtime. We approach the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. December 21st. Lacking a good and accurate calendar, the way people knew it had come and gone was that the day started to get longer. YAY!! THE RETURN OF THE SUN! We’ve turned the corner! Spring is coming! And how easy it is to ascribe religious significance to it when you believe the seasons and all aspects of nature are governed by gods. The god of warmth and sun has triumphed again over the god of cold and night!
And what happens to those rational Christians when that card gets removed from the house? What else might be wrong? … How can I give the benefit of the doubt to the unproven, when the things I was taught were certain are OBVIOUSLY wrong? … How can a rational faith teach this?? … We would have been celebrating this season if Jesus had never been born.
And they walk away.
And I have a hard time blaming them.
I blame the sand-head-repeaters, because there is a good reason for it. Just because a teaching has gotten twisted, doesn’t mean that it didn’t start as rational.
You see, the early Christians didn’t have any illusions about this season being their idea. If they were Jewish, they grew up with Hanukkah (what Jesus would have celebrated, by the way); if they were Hellenistic gentiles, they would most likely have been lighting up bonfires against the dark, bringing in evergreen boughs against the winter, giving each other gifts (yeah. Long before St. Nick. Once again, get over it), upsetting social norms, having all sorts of sex, and watching for the victory of the Sun.
Then they decided not to celebrate those things. They thought, hey, what a perfect metaphor for the the coming of the messiah! They figured that the coming of the small new light when everything seemed the darkest was a brilliant parallel for the Light of the World coming as a baby into a spiritually dark world. They said that the rest of the world could celebrate what they wanted to, but they were going to take that time and remember that when all seems the darkest and the quietest, and it seems like the winter will never end, God is moving and is coming to save.
The season was the reason that they celebrated Jesus.
I feel that I need to be clear again: I believe that the nativity is a historical event, just not as it tends to be portrayed by Christians today. We ignore the Bible for a more picturesque, easy to tell story. Sometimes I’m kind of okay with that… there are Wise Men in our nativity creche at the same time as the shepherds*. But let’s talk about it.
Let’s talk about why the story of Jesus’ birth and the events of the years surrounding it are celebrated at the Christ Mass just past winter solstice–the way the story comes together is too powerful to ignore. Let’s talk about what an awesome point of dialogue this metaphor is for relating our faith to the world! Let’s not dumb stuff down for our kids in such a way that, when they become old enough to process the metaphor, it sounds like a lie. Let’s not attack the people around us, directly or with passive-aggressive Facebook posts, for celebrating a season that we’ve co-opted for our own. They can take the Christ out of Christmas… we put it in. Without Christ, it’s just a “mass” – a feast, and they were doing that long before us.
Above all, let’s not let the trite overcome the profound. Let’s not build straw men that make our faith look ridiculous. As the world looks toward the hope of the new year, let’s be able to offer the reason for the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
*They weren’t. GASP! *house of cards falling*
Sometimes I like to think of myself as “mechanically inclined”. I love to take things apart. When I was a kid, if it had screws and I had a screwdriver, it had a good chance of being disassembled as far as I could make it go. Sometimes if it didn’t have screws, but looked like it should come apart, I’d make a yeoman’s effort at it anyway. I always wanted to get down to the nuts and bolts of things. Knowing that something worked, what it was for, how to make it work, those things weren’t enough. I wanted to know why it worked.
Of course, most of the time when I opened things up, the workings were more electronic than mechanical. I’d get as far as “the buttons push this lever, which presses on a doohicky, and that awakens the magical microscopic leprechauns.” The same leprechauns that keep airplanes aloft [You may think that you know why airplanes can fly, but look it up… the truth is that the physics don’t actually add up. Weird, eh?]. Unfortunately, I found that once it was apart, getting things back together in working condition proved much more challenging. I called it “learning”. Other people called it “breaking”. Whatever. In case you were wondering, that’s why I didn’t become a doctor.
AAAAnnnnyyyyway… let’s add that little tidbit in with the well established fact that I have a strong penchant for healthy debate [virulent rhetorical argument], and a basic theological education. The end result is that I wind up having pleasant online chats with other armchair theologians who hold different points of view, that occasionally only stop short of blows because they can’t feel it when I hit my monitor.
A lot of you won’t care about most of this post. It’s not an issue that a lot of people think or care about. Some people will love it. Some people will hate it. Such is life. Just so we’re on the same page, here’s a little Theology (study of God) 101: Outside of the Catholic/Protestant debates, the biggest split in Christian theology is between Calvinists and Arminians. If you’re a Christian, and don’t know which you are, I’ll tell you how to figure it out at the end of this post.
I’m an Arminian. My arguments with Calvinists often end with me repeatedly placing my head against my keyboard violently. I’ve actually (for the most part) stopped engaging in them. Why? I took the argument apart. From an Arminian point of view, an argument looks like a frank exchange of ideas; open and reasoned. I love that. From a Calvinist point of view, an argument looks like this:
And that’s stupid.
Some of you are laughing. Some of you are confused. This may help: The Calvinist world-view revolves around God’s sovereignty (ruling authority) and active, wilful control of everything. When I debate, after we burn through the stock arguments that each side comes equipped with, I try to sit back and process based on the premise their holding – give it a test drive, if you will. This is what I got from putting myself in the place of a Calvinist arguing with me:
God, in his sovereignty, has decided that we will meet this day. Leading up to this day, he has arranged our lives and controlled our beliefs that we might have a different view of him. He has brought us together at this point, so that he might force you to speak words that are untrue about him, and have me speak words that are true about him. He will make me very emphatic about this, and cause me to insinuate that he created you to be less than intelligent, although since the ability to process information is irrelevant when he decides everything we think or say, it has no bearing on the discussion. He will have me point out to you how wrong you are to believe the untrue things that he caused you to believe. Then he’s going to make you disbelieve the things that he’s made me say, and cause you to say things that might make me doubt my position, except that he ordained that I hold to these beliefs, and so I have no choice but to continue to do so. He will keep us arguing for a while, dictating the debate, and compelling us to hold our original positions because it serves his greater glory to be seen making two people contend over the issue before other people that he has willed either to agree, disagree, or not care at all, and as a witness to the people he has caused not to believe in him.
And then my head exploded.
I honestly can’t wrap my head around holding this position. It doesn’t make any sense to me [but that’s okay, because God willed it not to], and seems internally inconsistent [but it’s not. It only seems that way because God decided to make me not understand its consistency]. What gets me is how worked up Calvinists get about it. They’re pulling out scripture, they’re trying to make logical arguments, they’re giving experiential anecdotes. Some of them seem very proud of their ability to work through this all and present it to people. It’s as if they think that their ability is their own, or their effort their own, or even their words their own. Then they get angry if someone continues to disagree with them as if it’s not God causing the people they’re arguing with to say the things they’re saying and their emotions are controlled by something other than the direct will of God. It’s like they believe that either party has a choice in the matter. It’s like they’re Arminian.
So you can argue with me about this, but don’t get mad. God wills everything, ipso facto, It’s God’s will that I post this. In fact, he dictated it, so get mad at him – they’re his words.
I promised at the beginning of this post that I’d help the Christians reading this to figure out if they’re Calvinist Christians or Arminian Christians. Here’s the test: If God brought you to this page and caused you to get angry at the crap he just caused me to write, you’re a Calvinist. If you came to this page and got mad because I wrote stuff that was clearly both wrong and offensive to God and right-thinking Christians, you’re an Arminian that thinks you’re a Calvinist. If you either found this amusing and agreed with it, or thought it was boring and pointless, you’re an Arminian. Hope that helps.
From now on, instead of getting into the debate, I’ll just link them here.