Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Acts 17: 16 - 34 or: How I Learned to Stop Whining and Love Christmastime

What follows will form the basis for the first of a four-part Advent adult forum series on the ongoing secular vs. religious "Battle Over Christmas" in American culture. The main premise is that hopeful desire and longing is at the heart of both the Christian liturgical season of Advent and secular Christmastime, and thus that there are more pastoral and useful ways to proclaim the Gospel to folks than zealously critiquing secular Christmastime culture. This adult forum series is the final assignment for an ethics course at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia entitled Christian Discipleship in a Consumer Society. If some congregation actually makes the huge mistake of actually calling me to be a pastor next year (heheh), I'll probably do an adult forum series that's something like this, so I'd love to hear your thoughts.

So here's the deal... I was planning on going in an entirely different direction for this adult forum series until this past Friday. I was sitting in Georgia, enjoying leftovers from Thanksgiving, trying hard not to check my email while on vacation and watching college football when I opened up Facebook and was immediately flooded by blogposts, comments and the like critiquing Black Friday and arguing that we should put Christ back in Christmas. There was even an official Black Friday Death Count that was particularly ominous. Most of what I read though, at least from my Christian sisters and brothers, tended to go in one of two directions. Folks on the more liturgically theologically/ politically conservative side of the spectrum tended to be lamenting the fact that in American culture Christmas is joyfully celebrated throughout the month of December thus resulting in the hopeful, prayerful liturgical season of Advent being ignored. Other issues from these folks included nativity scenes not being allowed on public town greens and the like. Folks on the more liturgically/ theologically/ politically liberal side of the spectrum primarily were attacking the radical consumerism that has become a part of secular Christmastime tradition. Christian criticism of consumerism seemed particularly pointed this year, probably because of Black Friday sales increasingly eating up Thanksgiving itself.

Most of the posts I read made some good points, some more than others, but the one I found most insightful was "On Black Friday" by Micah J. Murray at Redemption Records. A main premise of the post is that its all too easy to zealously tell folks what to do rather than listen to their own perspectives. Check out the perspective of one of the commenters on Micah's blogpost, for instance:
This is a very generous and thoughtful post.
My family is lovely, but we grew up really poor. Money has always been scarce, and as you say, it's easy to be a minimalist when you have no money. And sure, making homemade bread, putting in a garden, and raising goats and chickens sounds idyllic, but becomes less fun and more urgent when your skills determine how you will eat.
Black Friday is an important time for my parents to be able to buy Christmas gifts, but also it's when my mother buys basics like jeans and winter coats for the family. The things she can't make herself she tends to buy at thrift stores or rummage sales, but Black Friday allows my siblings to have new things. It's a small but significant joy.
I love my family and can't imagine a better place in which to grow up, and when people get preachy about what other people should do, it's unkind and offensive. Many families barely get by, and we shouldn't forget or belittle them. ~ Holly Houston
So then, as all Christians, not just pastors, are called to spread the Gospel, especially to folks who haven't heard it, the question simply becomes how should we respond to God's call during our secular, overly consumeristic American Christmastime without sounding like overly zealous, whiny jerks? I really dig the Bible, and find it tends to be a great starting place for resolving these sort of problems. One of my favorite passages, Acts 17:16-34, provides a great deal of insight here:
16While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. 17So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the market-place every day with those who happened to be there. 18Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, ‘What does this babbler want to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.’ (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) 19So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, ‘May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? 20It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.’ 21Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new. 
22Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. 23For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. 24The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, 25nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. 26From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, 27so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. 28For “In him we live and move and have our being”; as even some of your own poets have said,
“For we too are his offspring.”  
29Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals. 30While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ 
32When they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some scoffed; but others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ 33At that point Paul left them. 34But some of them joined him and became believers, including Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris, and others with them. (NRSV)
Christianity, when it is at it's best at least, tends proclaim the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ through a culturally relevant means, just like Saint Paul did in Athens by referring to "the altar to an unknown god." Our American culture is no longer a predominately Christian culture, and thus sharing the good news through the same old nativity scenes, Advent calendars and critiques of consumerism is like trying to talk about the Gospel in a foreign language. So, while it doesn't mean we'll be able to reach everybody (even Paul couldn't do that), if we can point to and embrace how Christ is already at work in our American secular Christmastime culture rather than zealously critiquing it, we'd probably do a whole lot better at fulfilling our Christian calling to spread the Gospel.

So, how is Christ at work in American secular Christmastime culture? The central theme of the Christian season of Advent and the true central theme of secular Christmastime is one and the same: creating space for the hopeful longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires. Think Christmastime and Santa and reindeers and toys is all about consuming material goods? Think again. In recent decades at least, most branding and advertisements for consumer products or commodities have veered toward emotional branding. It's not about selling the product on its material merits, but rather on the emotions or experiences that having a given product will bring. Just check out this famous Christmastime Folger's Coffee commercial as one example:

Everybody loves Peter! That great nineties hair, epic cable-knit sweater... huge fashion whoa! And everybody in the family is so happy that Peter is home for Christmas! While the commercial somewhat indicates Folger's Coffee smells good, the commercial isn't really about the coffee at all... it's about a longing for family, for togetherness, for lasting memories with loved ones, all legitimate human desires. And buying Folger's Coffee somehow will magically result in the fulfillment of all these desires.

If you still need further evidence that secular Christmastime is about hoping and longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires, check out these two famous and (primarily) secular Christmas songs:

David Bowie and Bing Crosby: "Peace on Earth/ Little Drummer Boy" (lyrics here)

The Peanuts: "Christmastime is Here" (lyrics here)

See? These two songs, and plenty of other cultural documents indicate secular Christmastime at its heart isn't about the toys or plasma TVs or wild drinking parties but rather hopeful longing for legitimate human desires: peace, family, love, joyful memories, cozy fires, olden times and ancient rhymes. Christ is present in all these legitimate human desires, and it would be pretty darn silly for Christians not to share the good news through these legitimate "altars to an unknown God."

So, the next question becomes how can we talk about and reflect on legitimate on the hopeful longing for the fulfillment of legitimate human desires through the lens of the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ? While there's plenty of sinners/ saints who could help us out in this regard from our collective Christian heritage, I'll bring up two here, one for more rational thinking folks and one for more spiritual/ mystical thinking folks: Martin Luther and Gregory of Nyssa. While they both come at the question of desire using somewhat opposite approaches, they pretty much land in the same place.

Let's start with good ol Luther, a major 16th century reformer whose work pretty much touched off the Protestant Reformation. He's probably a better resource for more rational sorts of thinkers. I'll just provide one excerpt from his model sermon for "The Gospel for Christmas Eve" on Luke 2: 1 - 14, but I encourage you to check it out in its entirety. You can find it in Volume 52 of the English Edition of Luther's Works:
For the Gospel teaches that Christ was born for our sake and that he did everything and suffered all things for our sake, just as the angel says here: "I announce to you a great joy which will come to all people; for to you is born this day a Savior who is Christ the Lord" [Luke 2:10-11] From these words you see clearly that he was born for us.
He does not simply say: "Christ is born," but: "for you is he born." Again, he does not say: "I announce a joy," but: "to you do I announce a great joy." Again, this joy will not remain in Christ, but is for all people. A damned or wicked man does not have this faith, nor can he have it. For the right foundation of all salvation which unites Christ and the believing heart in this manner is that everything that have individually becomes something they hold in common...
A central teaching here is that while its extremely legitimate to have all sorts of human desires, including desiring God, God desires us more than we could ever desire anything, even to the point of being born in a manger amongst farm animals to an unwed virgin and a lowly carpenter.

Let's see what Gregory of Nyssa has to say, a 4th century Cappadocian Father who writes from a more spiritual/ mystical perspective. The following excerpt is from his "First Homily on the Song of Songs," discussing Song 1:1-4. I encourage you to check out the whole thing, especially as the more mystical side of Christian theology is lesser known in our contemporary times, at least in the Western churches:
Moses conversed with God face to face, as scripture testifies [Dt 34.10], and he thereby acquired a still greater desire for these kisses after the theophanies. He sought God as if he had never seen him. So it is with all others in whom the desire for God is deeply embedded: they never cease to desire, but every enjoyment of God they turn into the kindling of a still more intense desire.
Even now the soul united to God never has its fill of enjoyment. The more it enjoys his beauty, the more its desire increases. The words of the bridegroom are spirit and life [Jn 5:24], and everyone who clings to the Spirit becomes spirit. He who attaches himself to life passes from death into life as the Lord has said. Thus the virginal soul desires to draw near to the fountain of spiritual life...
A main premise here is that God is the gift that keeps on giving. Although God draws us closer and closer to Herself in faith, our ever increasing desire for her can never be satiated, through our own action or otherwise. Thus, the central focus once again becomes not on what we're doing, but how God's love is for us an infinite "fountain of spiritual life."

Martin Luther and Gregory of Nyssa are only two of many possible saints/ sinners in our collective Christian history that can help us think about how to proclaim the good news of God's act of liberating love in Christ through the "altars to an unknown god" that are the legitimate human desires celebrated during secular Christmastime. I'd love to hear more perspectives as well.

As a final bit (and one I don't have a lot of time reflect on), check out this letter from Lutheran World Federation General Secretary Martin Junge. Entitled "God’s Free Gift of Grace in Market-Driven Times" and written for Reformation Day 2013, it talks about how the LWF's upcoming celebration of the 500th anniversary of the reformation in 2017 will focus on three related themes: 1) salvation is not for sale, 2) human beings are not for sale, and 3) creation is not for sale. This letter can definitely help us think about consumerism, the hopeful longing for legitimate human desires celebrated by secular Christmastime and how we can respond as Christians. Thanks so much!

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.