Some thoughts I had about Christmas and current events in 2013. You may still find them useful in 2020.
When Christmas Was An Act Of War
In 1990, years before the Internet was commercially accessible, Washington Post columnist George Will committed an act of cultural subversion by quoting, in his newspaper column, the actual lyrics of hip hop group 2 Live Crew. What made Will's article subversive was that, up to that moment in time, the entire discussion in the media concerning the causes of our coarsening culture was being conducted under a shroud of euphemism and polite sanitation. Mr. Will, by rubbing the reader's nose in the violently sadistic words of 2 Live Crew, ripped the mask off the discussion of abstract theories and artistic freedom to reveal something more, shall we say, reality based.
About 10 years after Will's article appeared, I sat in the visitor's section of a private Christian high school gymnasium near Dallas, waiting on a basketball game to start. While the teams were warming up, blaring over the loudspeaker from the CD player was the song "Smack My B***h Up", which had been previously banned from even the egregious MTV because of its content. Obviously, even 13 years ago, the degree of Christian cultural accommodation was well advanced.
I was reminded of that 23 year old article and that long ago basketball game this past week as I read GQ's recent interview with Phil Robertson -- the one that has given everyone the vapors. I know that the Robertson schtick is "Redneck Woodsman", but the man holds a master's degree from Louisiana Tech. He is a cogent thinker and offers sophisticated arguments on a variety of issues whenever he so chooses. I came away from reading the interview strongly suspecting that Phil's unvarnished thoughts regarding homosexuality were, like George Will's article, an act of premeditated cultural subversion. In a very similar but more folksy way, Phil moved the bar from a mainstream discussion about "orientation" and "rights" to one about sin and degradation. In doing so, he baited those groups, the ones who seek to silence religious conservatives, into reacting predictably and true to form.
Within the Christian community, there is a very fine line between relevance and worldly compromise. Christianity offers, not so much a psychological framework for coping, but an unblinking look at reality. It's fine to discuss whether Phil's precise comments and anatomical references constituted the absolute very best way to discuss the issues he raised. I personally incline toward George Will's view that taking euphemism out of the discussion improves clarity of thought. Be that as it may, it's important to come to grips with the fact that there is no way for Christians to be both truthful AND warmly received by the world. I'm all in favor of trying to be winsome in the way we present our message. But we shouldn't be surprised when it doesn't always work. We should, in fact, be more surprised when it does.
The Christian message is in conflict with the entire world system and seeks to overturn it. "Don't be surprised if the world hates you." That's how Jesus described the reaction we should expect.
And far from being a distraction from Christmas, this kind of conflict, as surprising as it may seem, is actually central to the meaning of Christmas.
Christmas brought "peace on earth" in a similar sense that the invasion of Normandy brought peace to Europe. The stable in Bethlehem was not in itself a peaceful event but an act of war, long prepared for the final stages of God's campaign to eliminate evil. The manger in Bethlehem was an arrow aimed at the very heart of darkness. The baby in the straw was the deadly tip, destined to deal the fatal blow.
And just in case you think a warlike understanding of Christmas is unique to me, well, I am not alone in perceiving the threat that slept in the stable that night. The world leaders of that day sensed it as well and took drastic, desperate action. They flailed wildly at the children of Bethlehem in an effort to, quite literally, strangle God in his cradle.
The Bible sometimes describes our existence here very much like a room with a one-way mirror. We see things happening in our day-to-day lives, but there are very real and significant things happening on the other side of the wall. The book of Job makes explicit that there are larger things afoot than our own experience and that our own suffering has greater significance than just what we can see.
The Christmas story, as told by John in the book of Revelation is rather more alarming than the ones in Matthew and Luke:
A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter". And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne...The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him...He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short. When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child...But the earth helped the woman...Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring—those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.
So while the shepherds and wise men celebrated the baby's birth, behind the one-way mirror the dragon stood waiting to eat the newborn baby. There raged a great conflict in the spiritual realm in which the dragon and his minions were defeated and hurled...to earth! (I confess to being very disappointed in our new neighbors.)
The enraged dragon even now wages war against "those who keep God's commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus".
All of which suggests to me that concerns about the cultural popularity of the Christian message are more than a little misguided. To a certain extent, such handwringing amounts to papering the attic while the basement is on fire.
We must, at all costs, love our neighbors enough to speak the uncomfortable truth regarding the utter failure of every person, the dragon that stalks the world, and the long prophesied Prince in that Bethlehem stable. The very Prince, destined to slay the dragon, who takes our failures on himself.
So maybe you will understand why I'm just a little dubious that the rage directed at Phil Robertson has anything much to do with how he said what he said. In reality, this is only one skirmish in a much larger conflict that rages at the very heart of the meaning of Christmas.
I have a sneaking suspicion that the broader Christian community, myself included, would be better off concerning ourselves, less with the fine points of Robertson gentility, and more with whether we're running to the sound of battle wherever we find it in our own lives.
After all, that's what Christmas is all about.