Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Only Nativity Scene I've Ever Felt Comfortable With

What follows is a post I recently wrote for my Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society journal, a semester-long assignment regularly making entries for a course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, where I'm currently in my last year of a Masters of Divinity program. Please comment! I'd love to hear what you think!

As we celebrate the Feast Day of Christ the King and begin preparations for the expectant, hopeful season of Advent, many folks (both Christian and otherwise) are probably not looking forward to the fact that Advent/ "the holiday season" is a time of the year when America's ongoing culture wars are probably the most pronounced. Things like fights over whether a child can mention the birth of Jesus in a public school, debates about whether a Christmas tree or even a nativity scene is allowed on the local town green and a common Christian lament about "the secularization/ commercialization of Christmas" around this time of the year are all too common.

While different understandings of the American concept of church/ state separation, concerns about the commercialization of Christmas and the skipping over of Advent are legitimate and thus are rightfully subjected to "spirited" public debate in our culture, there's one humble suggestion I have for my fellow sisters and brothers in Christ that would lessen tensions around this time of the year... if you have a nativity scene outside your church, make sure it conveys the good news of Christ that it's supposed to. With the exception of the nativity scene Saint John's Lutheran Church on Christopher Street in NYC had up last year, I can't really think of a particular outdoor nativity scene that does a good job of proclaiming the gospel (with some of those "living nativity scenes" as notable exceptions). Now I may think this because I haven't seen enough nativity scenes to make an honest judgement, but I do know that most of the non-Christian friends I talk with about the subject (if they notice them at all) tend to think one of two things about the nativity scenes they see sprouting up around town: 
  • Nativity scenes are sometimes offensive. This is because the human characters in nativity scenes are frequently all European American (especially odd since Jesus and everyone else except for perhaps the three kings/ magi would have been West Asian).
  • Nativity scenes are sometimes oppressive. For folks whose primary brushes with Christianity have been extremely oppressive, judgmental and perhaps even hateful, a nativity scene that doesn't proclaim the radical hospitality that Jesus is all about can simply become another reminder about all the sinful aspects of Christian history. For folks how have a sort of neutral view of Christianity but don't know the Biblical stories behind the nativity, such scenes can simply look like a bunch of pious "perfect people" standing around an empty manger with a bunch of farm animals instead of a display that proclaims God lovingly frees and welcomes in us sinners of all shapes and sizes.
So, with all that in mind, the two photos you see here are of the nativity scene outside Saint John's Lutheran Church last year in the heart of Greenwich Village. It depicts the nativity in a way that culturally translates... occupiers, a drag queen, a business man, hip-hoppers and a beat poet are all gathered around the manger with Mary and Joseph, expectantly waiting the coming of the Christ-child. What an amazingly creative way to get noticed and more importantly proclaim the gospel in a way culturally translates what Christ's coming is all about!

Many thanks to Pastor Erson for sending these pictures to me, but all the writing above reflects my thoughts and my thoughts alone. Please don't take this post as a challenge at all... I bet there's a bunch of really great nativity scenes out there! Rather, read this as an invitation to share some of those creative ways your faith community has discerned how to proclaim the gospel during Advent and Christmas.

God's peace,

Dustin is currently in his final year of a Masters of Divinity program at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, having recently completed a year as Vicar at the Lutheran Office for World Community and Saint Peter's Church in New York City. While seeking ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, his focus is on the intersection between worship, service and justice in de-centralized faith communities unencumbered by a traditional church building. In his free time, Dustin likes playing frisbee, hiking and pretending to know how to sing.


  1. That's great.. I love a creative Nativity. I found this one that made me really laugh, but felt it was a creative way to display.

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