The Church 5: Western Christians in a Post-Christian Culture—Merry Christmas!
This brief reflection on a major issue is meant to stir some discussion: I truly hope it brings some change. The larger issue is, “How are Christians to Live as Christians in a Post-Christian Culture?” In order to offer a crisp reflection on an otherwise huge topic, I will focus this on the matter of Christmas. And, Merry Christmas to all reading this post this month! The subject of mission involves, among many other things, an understanding of the Church as a distinct entity—Christ-focussed—within a larger society that reaches out to that society. A “Christian” holiday gets to the heart of such a matter.
The Present Post-Christian Situation
Living in England some years ago, we were amazed to find children in the local Church of England primary school who did not know what Easter was about and who were encouraged to practice Buddhist meditation as an exercise in the classroom for a religious education class. I recently had a student ask, “What is ‘Post-Christian?’”—that is! When vestiges of Christianity are more likely to show up in a history course—if even there—a once Christian society is post-Christian. That no country can ever be said to be “Christian” is, in my view, an important caveat to this discussion and one that goes all the way back to St. Augustine’s City of God. Still, Europe, and the countries it colonized, established an institutional relationship with churches such that Christianity was a powerful force within the culture. We call it “Christendom,” and it is not a neutral story but a story of both great blessing and horrible abuse. Laws were passed, hospitals and schools were established, Christian “holy days” were observed, and most people showed up for church services on Sunday morning if not other times during the week. Marriage was a covenant relationship between a man and a woman, and people did not live together before marriage, were not sexually active until marriage, did not contemplate same-sex unions (let alone ‘marriages’), did not divorce—except as exceptions to the rule, and these rules were what the Church taught and the social institutions and laws of the country, to some extent, supported.
Again, this is not to say that the society really was Christian, or even that the institutions that supported the Church and its projects were Christian, or even, for that matter, that the institutional Church was itself Christian! Frankly, there was a lot in Christendom that was not at all Christian. However, whatever gains were made by the Church to overcome the pagan practices of pre-Christian Europe were gains made by persons seeking to establish a more Christian society. And there, by the way, is a history lesson often missing from the classroom today because history is always written by the conquerors, and non-Christian society has, by and large, conquered the Church in Europe, Canada, the USA, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa today.
The Christianizing of Culture, and Christmas
We need to think a little about the Christianizing of culture before we think further about living as Christians in a post-Christian culture. Christmas illustrates the point. It was once an important day in pre-Christian Europe. Coming just after the winter solstice, the actual day was associated with the god Mithras in Roman religion, a religion originating in what is today Iran. In Roman practice, the holiday celebrated the rebirth of the sun-god after the shortest day of the year, and it involved giving gifts and feasting. The priests carried wreaths made from evergreen boughs as they processed through the towns and villages during the festival. The origin of the Christmas tree in Christian times in Germany may have something to do with sacred trees in German culture—proposals of its possible history can easily be accessed online. With the “Christianization” of the Roman empire, beginning with the first Roman Emperor, Constantine, in 312, such practices needed to change. It is one thing to pass a law against gladiatorial shows, slavery, or homosexual practice, but what can be done with holidays? People do not easily give up their holidays! So, this holiday became a Christian holy day, Christmas, the day of Christ’s birth. He was not, of course, born on Christmas day—and we do not know on what day he was born (it would have been at a time of the year when shepherds could be in the fields in Israel, though!).
The De-Christianizing of Culture
In the West today, every holiday season associated with the Christian calendar ends up under attack, sometimes out of ignorance and sometimes very intentionally. Have you ever heard a Christmas song that incorporates Jesus and Santa Claus? I have. The Hallmark channel has worked hard to create a vision of Christmas that is all about love, Christmas decorations, and Santa Claus that often makes reasonable viewing for families but, in fact, more often than not excises Christ from Christmas. This is a far more powerful instrument of de-Christianizing culture than the more aggressive forms, such as lawsuits against public nativity scenes, a governor lighting the “Holiday Tree” (“Christmas” is too Christian), and the like. The effects of this are felt when the sales lady says, “Happy Holidays” to you, having been instructed to eliminate any Christian message from the season.
Living as Christians in a Post-Christian Culture
Christians are caught off guard in the West today, not knowing how to respond to all this. One response is to fight back, figuratively speaking, trying to reclaim the Christian nation that some Christians imagine the country in which they live once was. (Again, there is never such a thing as a Christian nation. Do not imagine that prayers to an unknown God before a football game are in the slightest way Christian prayers and of any merit, for example!) So they respond to the sales lady who wishes them “Happy Holidays” by saying “Merry Christmas!” Another response is to accept the division between Church and society, and remove Christian presence from the public square altogether. That may actually be an appropriate response in a time of intense persecution—we should not write it off altogether. However, in the West today, the best approach is for Christians to learn how to be a minority witness within a larger society.
This means realizing that we are not the majority, and we are not going to force the rest of society to adopt our ways. We are going to have to acknowledge that society has a different view of marriage from us, that we practice business differently and are not typical in how we conduct our affairs, that we use our time and resources differently, and so forth. We are going to have to know who we are better than we have in the past, distinct from the larger society in many ways. An example might come from some ethnic group in the larger society holding a festival in the city—like the Greek festival in Charlotte, North Carolina. People attend the festival, listen to the Greek music, buy the Greek food, and some people visit the Greek Orthodox Church out of curiosity about what goes on inside. People at the festival do not show up feeling threatened to become Greek, and so they feel free to explore what it means to be Greek. Somehow, Christians need to celebrate their differences publicly without threatening the now pagan society around them. They need to give up the notion that the end-goal is “Christendom” once again—a powerful take-over of pagan culture. Unlike the Greek festival, they want to celebrate a way of life distinct from larger society that offers the possibility of inclusion, not exclusion. They need to focus on what it means to witness as a minority within a larger culture and be a winsome community of love in Christ.
What about Christmas?
This takes us back to Christmas. We wring our hands about how it has become commercialized while we go out with everyone else to buy our presents. We tell the sales lady that it is Christmas, not simply Holiday! We buy our evergreen tree and decorate it with everyone else. We try to celebrate a fairly pagan holiday while insisting that it is all about Christ’s birthday. I think there is an alternative, although it will take a little effort on our part.
My suggestion for the West is that we change the date of Christmas from the “Catholic” West to the “Orthodox” East. Just as the Western Church took over the pagan festival as the Church became a power in Europe that forcefully Christianized culture—often losing its Christian witness in the process—so now, in post-Christian culture, we might just as well give it back. This will be a tremendous gain for the Church, not a loss at all.
It will be a gain, firstly, because the Church is not trying to articulate its message around a holiday with Santa Claus, Hallmark, and the atheist governor fighting for control of the meaning of Christmas. The Church can only gain by separating the message of Christ’s birth from all that.
Secondly, the Church would gain because its engagement with the world would not be over who has power and control in society. Instead of forcing itself on society, the Church would be free to bear witness to its distinct identity.
Third, the Church will gain because at least one of the divisions between the West and the East in Christianity can be healed. The Orthodox Christmas is celebrated on the 7th of January, not due to any theological debate that might be worth fighting over but simply because different calendars developed over time. Well, why not join the celebration over on the other side of what is, in any case, a holiday time of year? Let Coca Cola’s red suited Santa Claus have the 25th of December. Let the stores have their commercial holiday and let them fight Hallmark over whether it is about promoting capitalism or showing "Holiday" cheer and love to neighbours. There is nothing on the 7th of January except the Orthodox Christmas—just waiting for Christians worldwide to focus their attention on that day, without any other claims. This would allow Christians, like the Greek festival in Charlotte, to showcase what the day is really about, who Jesus Christ really is, and what the Church is celebrating.
Fourth, by celebrating Christmas on the 7th of January, Christians would have a non-threatening opportunity to stand apart from culture and witness to culture. Christians could keep their children home from school that day and, if possible, not go to work themselves. (My Jewish friends did this on Jewish holidays in South Africa while the rest of us had to show up for classes!) They would not be telling everyone else that they should also take the 7th of January off as a holiday but only that they do, as Christians. In fact, Christian witness would be especially powerful in the West because Christians would be saying, “What you celebrate as Christmas has nothing to do with our faith—go ahead, we might even join with you in a Winter Holiday celebration of food and presents that is pretty much the same as the Autumn Harvest Festival (if in the northern hemisphere, or Thanksgiving, if in America).” And then, by celebrating Jesus’ birth a couple weeks later, Christians would be making the world ask, “So, what is this holiday of yours all about?” At last, we could explain that it has nothing to do with decorated trees and Santa Claus but about God sending His Son into the World to live among a people that needs a Saviour.
We could, fifthly, also reform some of our all-too-pagan practices around Christmas. How about making it a “Giving” day instead of a “Getting Day”? By that I do not mean exchanging presents, as though that is giving, but a day that the Christian Church actually gives to those in need? We could be a visible presence in society that day for the good that we do in our local areas. (Imagine that!) We would be distinct from society but in a way that serves the larger society. This would not make Christmas into a family holiday, as it now is, with everyone trying to get home for Christmas. It would be alright that the college students have already left for college (if that occurs—it often would not), that children are back in school, or that people are already back to work from the “Winter Holiday” celebrations. Christmas would be about the Church incarnate in society just as Jesus, the Son of God, became flesh and dwelt among us. We could have a church service on this holy day, a special service that somehow makes the wise and wealthy foreigners from the East as welcome as the lowly and despised shepherds in the field welcome. We would need to alter our church calendar slightly in the West, but this is not a difficult task—and tradition needs to serve the witness of the Church, not the other way around!
We have a lot to think about as we learn to live as a minority within society in the post-Christian West. We need to learn to give up power, but to do so in ways that increase the witness of our unique faith in Christ Jesus. We need to learn how to have discussions about ethics that do not simply revolve around the human rights debates of Enlightenment ethics. We need to learn how to explain our faith as belief amidst scientific foundationalism just as much as we need to learn how to articulate our universal claims regarding truth in a postmodern world that only believes in locally constructed, functional truth. We need to learn how to speak of God in a culture that struggles to see anything transcendent beyond the immediate and physical—like the mid-twentieth century, existentialist playwright, Ingmar Bergmann, concluding the God is silent and, unable even to explain a transcendent notion such as love, settling simply for the momentary pleasure of sex. As we seek to live winsomely but against the grain of our now pagan culture, we might have a go at what this could look like by moving the date of Christmas and watch what happens!