Christmas contemporary

In recent years, I’ve noticed a strange trend in “Christian contemporary”-style Christmas music: they ramp up the emotions up to 1000%. All the originals jump very quickly to our profound gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice, while the classics are belted out with such intensity that one suspects that Harold the Angel personally came down from heaven and cured both the singer’s parents of cancer. Seldom has one observed such a passionate desire that God maintain a group of gentlemen in a state of merriness.

The message here is clear: we, the evangelical true believers, have access to the “true meaning of Christmas,” the much-invoked “reason for the season,” and we really, really, really believe in it in a way you non-believers just can never grasp.

This trend fits strangely with the annual “War on Christmas” rhetoric, however. By insisting that everyone make some token gesture of acknowledgement toward Christmas, aren’t the pro-Christmas insurgents pushing an agenda whose logical endpoint is the very secularization of Christmas they elsewhere deplore? After all, if Christmas is to be the hegemonic winter holiday, isn’t it natural for non-Christians to attempt to find some kind of point of contact that’s meaningful for them? Hence the “secular” carols invoking the fun decorations or the weird legend of Santa Claus or even — as seen in the great Jewish Christmas carols of the mid-century — the bare fact that it’s cold and snowy out.

Asking what all of that is supposed to have to do with Jesus is missing the point — you can’t have a holiday that’s simultaneously “all about Jesus” and a meaningful celebration for a broad range of people in a pluralistic society. One could say that the evangelicals don’t want to live in a pluralistic society, but I don’t think that’s quite right, either: part of the very structure of the movement is its drive to convert, even if it mostly winds up “converting” inactive members of other Christian groups. It needs the indifferent almost as much as it needs the imagined outside opposition.

The surface-level conflict between the drive toward making Christmas a simultaneously more partisan and more universal holiday disappears once you stop viewing it as a policy agenda and start viewing it as a representation of the sense of wounded superiority that serves as a motor for the entire evangelical movement.

13 thoughts on “Christmas contemporary

  1. I have a similar contradiction on almost the extreme opposite side of the spectrum in regards to Christmas. I guess I’d consider myself an agnostic, so I feel a little hypocritical celebrating Christmas. I just have to deal with it, though, because I’m not willing to alienate my entire family by turning my back on the celebratory activities. This leaves me in a situation where I roll my eyes once Christmas starts rolling around.

    Over the years, though, I’ve realized it’s not the religious part of the holiday I seem to have a problem with. I have a lot of respect for people who view it as a holy day and focus on it as one of their religion’s “biggies”. My mom is one of those people and when I was little I thought it was commendable that we stopped the Christmas morning stuff to go to mass. No, the part of the season I can’t stand is the commercial segment of the holiday where we’re inundated with commercials and are almost expected to stretch ourselves financially to be generous with gifts.

    If you take away belief in the “reason for the season” but aren’t a big fan of the gift giving frenzy, what are you left with? In my experience, an awkwardness about the season and gratitude for a reason to get together with family everybody seems to accept.

  2. “After all, if Christmas is to be the hegemonic winter holiday, isn’t it natural for non-Christians to attempt to find some kind of point of contact that’s meaningful for them?”

    Also, didn’t it start out as basically a hegemonic winter holiday that Xtians moved in on? So it has a venerable non-Xtian pedigree.

  3. I appreciate your point that evangelicals thrives off having non-Christians who are also part of the society. This structure was pointed out recently on the Daily Show when some Fox News anchors were complaining about businesses who have begun using “Merry Christmas” again. The anchors were questioning whether this was a sincere effort or whether they were merely pandering (the irony seemed to escape them). If one thinks about the Jim Crow south and the way white, racist, conservative Christians functioned, the parallels are quite stark. Despite the fact that they had all the political and economic power, they were still were constantly paranoid that Jews, communists, or African Americans were going to destroy their society.

  4. The “war on Christmas” is not about Christmas; it’s about the loss of privileged social status by folks who aren’t paying much attention to the Christmas story (which, after all, is about God favoring a marginal/marginalized people). But you’re being a little rough essentializing evangelicals in this way (“wounded superiority that serves as a motor for the entire evangelical movement”). It’s a nice phrase, and I think it’s only too true of many American evangelicals, but I doubt it’s a fair description of the “entire” movement, which encompasses everyone from Pat Robertson to Shane Claiborne. The gathering that produced the 1973 Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Action included John Howard Yoder, Donald Dayton, and Ronald Sider. That they didn’t become the dominant voices within evangelicalism on the questions of social concern doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be considered evangelicals. This is not a minor or irrelevant correction, as public mischaracterization/vilification certainly doesn’t help prevent some evangelicals from being lured in by the siren songs of the conservative culture warriors.

  5. I’m always confused when I see people trying to redeem the term ‘evangelical’. One wonders if the term honestly means anything if people as diverse as Jerry Fallwell and John Howard Yoder would both use the term to describe themselves. It seems to be an empty signifier when you stretch the definition that wide. I think most people use it as being synonymous with the Religious Right. I don’t even know what theologically unites “evangelicals” from Charlie’s perspective. I’ve always had the fantasy that ex-evangelicals feel the need to hold onto to the term evangelical because they’ve been fed the idea that liberal Christians aren’t real Christians.

  6. Charlie, Is someone who’s susceptible to culture war siren songs *ever* going to take my arguments seriously? It seems like you’re doing a version of the classic “your rhetoric in this comment thread might alienate a swing voter in Ohio” move.

  7. Adam, weren’t you just linked to off of the First Thoughts blog? And in response to my surprise about that, didn’t you just tell me that you’ve been cited at Christianity Today? I suppose one could assume that anyone who might come here from there is already so blinkered they’ll never take you seriously. Talk about adding insult to injury. But more basically, surely you’re not suggesting that mischaracterizing something/someone is legit so long as it doesn’t make a bad problem worse. I doubt seriously you’ve ever allowed someone to mischaracterize your own position for this reason, even though you have a healthy realism about the limits of the impact AUFS’ conversations will have on anything.

    Jeremy, I’m not trying to redeem anything. I’m not an evangelical by most standards, and I’m not terribly interested in much of what passes for evangelical theology and scholarship. I’m just suggesting we refuse to reduce a complex phenomena down to a caricature. Evangelicalism was a movement that spawned a spectrum of contemporary evangelical theologies. There’s no evangelical magisterium, which is one of the reasons you can have a John Howard Yoder identifying with evangelicalism (at some level; Yoder was most strongly identified with Anabaptism) at the same time as you can have a Pat Robertson or a Billy Graham doing so.

  8. “But more basically, surely you’re not suggesting that mischaracterizing something/someone is legit so long as it doesn’t make a bad problem worse.”

    Yes, obviously he’s not saying that.

    I think he’s probably saying that the demands for nuance are kind of ridiculous. I know what he’s talking about. You know what he’s talking about. So why are you trying to police how it is said? In case someone from Christianity Today shows up? Frankly I’d prefer they didn’t. This isn’t a teaching blog and I’m not “called” to evangelize our positions. So I’m actually wondering what your desire is when you come here trying to get us to.

  9. Charlie, I’d prefer you didn’t comment at all if you’re just going to be the “nuance police.” It’s pretty obvious to everyone that there is a self-identified evangelical movement that is basically as I describe it. There’s a lot in historic evangelicalism that is interesting and promising, but it does no one any good to pretend that the contemporary movement embodies that kind of thing in any genuine way.

  10. This article from the Telegraph the other day (I don’t know why I bother subscribing to the Telegraph Religion feed… it’s all stupid crap like this) seems like a similar thing.

    I think Matt in Toledo makes a good point. It’s not necessarily the religiosity of Christmas celebration that bothers people, but rather the pushiness of it. One might even say that the evangelization Adam points out is the other side of the coin as the commercialization that Matt laments… a point which makes the Christmas warring even more sinister than simply a battle about meaning, I think.

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