Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Churches Dreaming of a White Christmas

Adapted from an essay I wrote on November 2, 2012:


We're thick into the Christmas season now, and churches of all denominations and theological stripes are having their annual Christmas concerts.

These concerts, of course, range in style and focus from sentimental seasonal standards to contemporary Christian extravaganzas to high-brow classical.  We have a gargantuan megachurch here in suburban Dallas that puts on a show every year to rival the legendary spectacle at Radio City Music Hall, complete with camels and flying angels.  I've never attended myself, but I hear their production is astonishingly professional and immensely entertaining.

Besides, since Santa Claus himself bows before the manger prop containing the Baby Jesus, it's supposedly good evangelism to boot.

And we evangelicals wonder why the world around us increasingly views our faith as some sort of fuzzy fable.  We like to blame the world for corrupting Christmas, but aren't we doing our part within the church to mythologize what we say we believe, especially when it comes to the narrative surrounding the birth of our Savior?

Christmas is No Myth

Forget all of the commercialization, the partying, the excessive gift-giving, the decorations, and the other busyness of this season.  Plenty of critics have already pointed out how the theological implications of Christ's nativity get lost in the ways we Westerners overdose on what we call "holiday cheer."

Meanwhile, one of the subtlest ways people within the church tend to fritter away the Biblical legitimacy of Christmas involves our complicity in perpetuating its traditionalist fallacies.  We want the nativity to be nostalgic and pretty.  Yet aren't the facts of Christ's incarnation far less cosseted and pristine?  How white should Christmas be, anyway, both in terms of the European spin we give it, and the snowy dusting with which we Western Caucasian evangelicals fondly depict it?

If you're dreaming of a white Christmas, let me remind you of the real deal:  Mary was a pregnant teenager who'd just finished a grueling trek forced upon her and her fiancĂ© - who wasn't the father of her baby - by their imperious government.  They ended up in a stable, with smelly hay, smelly farm animals, smelly excrement from those smelly farm animals, and no obstetrician, neonatal nurse, or midwife in sight.  Their first visitors after Christ's birth weren't nobility, but a group of illiterate shepherds.

In addition, this all took place probably in March or April, not the dead of winter, and the magi were just starting out on their journey after seeing the star in the East.  It would take them a couple of years to make it to the place where the young Christ child was.  And by then, it wouldn't have been a stable.

And guess what - it hardly ever snows in temperate Bethlehem.

Actually, if we told the story authentically, wouldn't we see that the reality of Christ's birth is more profound than the frosted fantasy into which our culture has polished it?  Thankfully, some of our songwriters have gotten it right, and attempted to marvel at God's perfect way of introducing Christ to this planet.  But it's hard for merchants to sell Christmas as an arduous, unsanitary, disenfranchised, and bizarre event.  And unfortunately, the evangelical church has been mostly complicit with the Nativity's commercializers in making the Incarnation a sellable product for once-a-year churchgoers.

Christmas Music Needs Authenticity

Regular readers of my blog essays know that I'm an unabashed advocate for classical hymnody.  I actually believe that what we consider to be traditional corporate worship provides, on the whole, a focus on Christ and God's holiness that comes closer to what our Trinity expects when we gather together to honor Him.  I'm willing to contend that culturally, our genre of classical music has become less a Caucasian, European contrivance as much as it has become a universally-renowned, broadly-appreciated style of stately repertoire uniquely suited to the worship of God, no matter where we're born, or in what society we've been raised.

Yes, that means some expressions of culture are better than others.  It's a politically incorrect thing to say, and, some think, a woefully impertinent thing to believe.  But it's true.  No human culture is perfect, or even ideal.  And many are utterly unBiblical.  Doesn't this mean that, when it comes to how we express our adoration of God to Him, particularly in public, we can't rely on cultural norms to be adequate?  Just because we're under the misapprehension that God values all cultural norms equally?

Don't we need to discriminate between what's good, and what's adequate, or even downright inappropriate?

When it comes to such cultural institutions as Christmas, shouldn't we resist the urge to let culture dictate our worship?  Shouldn't communicating the glory of Christ's birth be done with as much theological and historical integrity as possible?

Poetic License to Mythologize?

Consider, then, one of most revered songs within the Christmas repertoire.  It's called "In the Bleak Midwinter," and the text is by noted poet Christina Rossetti, who lived from 1830 until 1894.  For the most part, these lyrics withstand basic theological scrutiny fairly well.  Yet Rossetti incorporates snowy winter themes and references the Wise Men in a way that bolsters the fictitious narrative of popular Christmas lore, which does a grave disservice to the historical accuracy of Christ's birth.

1. In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan, earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone; snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow, in the bleak midwinter, long ago.

2. Our God, heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain; heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign. In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed the Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

3. Angels and archangels may have gathered there, cherubim and seraphim thronged the air; but his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshiped the beloved with a kiss.

4. What can I give him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb; if I were a Wise Man, I would do my part; yet what I can I give him: give my heart.

Thematically, the references to a "bleak midwinter" could be argued as being allegorical to the span of quiet time between the writing of the Old and New Testaments, when it's widely thought that God's presence had been generally withheld from our planet.  Then too, since centuries ago, the Roman Catholic Church had moved the observance of Christmas to coincide with pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice, which symbolizes a time of death between the seasons of decay and renewal, a "bleak midwinter" presents a poetic linkage between mortal sin and salvation.

For the artistic among us, appreciating these delicate abstractions may be a permissible way to forgive the historical inaccuracies that help to mythologize Christmas.  Scott Aniol, a professor of church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that on its literary merits alone, the poetry of "In the Bleak Midwinter" makes it a bona-fide carol for evangelicals to use during Advent.

"What Rossetti is portraying in her poem," reasons Aniol, "is not a weather report on the day of Christ’s birth.  Rather, she is using quite conventional metaphorical imagery to paint a picture of the condition of the world when Jesus was born.  This was a harsh world, a world that was cold as ice, dark as midnight, and hard as iron... Sin had built up upon the world like snow piled upon snow upon snow upon snow.  This world was bleak.  And it is into this world that the God of Heaven descended.  Rossetti beautifully contrasts the bleakness of a cold dark world with the warmth and light of the stable.  You can almost see the light and feel the warmth through her words."

That may be, but is artistic license sufficient authorization for reinforcing inaccurate cultural baggage when it comes to the Gospel?  Literary nuance is one thing, but isn't basing it on pagan fables a bit counter-productive?  She may sure write pretty, but Rossetti's imagery does little to convey a universal application of the Christmas story to cultures where references to snow and its allegorical qualities risks tilting the Incarnation towards a Western - and therefore, foreign - aesthetic.

Granted, the Holy Spirit can overcome any obstacle we Christians can put in the way of Christ's redemptive work, but how loving is it for us to intentionally and unnecessarily complicate parts of the Gospel?

Let's Liberate Christmas from Ethnocentrism!

Maybe you don't mind singing songs that are exclusive to your culture and cohort.  And in terms of everyday socialization, doing so isn't wrong, in and of itself.  But when it comes to the Gospel, shouldn't we be seeking to free God's Good News from the shackles of our own cultural bondage?  The message of God becoming incarnate for us is a global message.  And it's not our message - it's God's!

For a full half of our planet, the midwinter is hardly bleak and snowy.  For them, it's like North America's and Europe's summertime!  If we sang Rossetti's song in Australia or Nigeria, we'd have to throw in the caveat, "well, this was written by a European white woman; you'll have to free it from its cultural baggage."

Maybe there are some Nigerian Christmas songs that talk about how hot and dusty it must have been during the winter when Christ was born.  See how awkward that would be for us?

Therefore, shouldn't Christ's Nativity be equally relevant to all of God's Elect, no matter where we live?  Or what our winters look like?

I'm not interested in preserving Western hymnody simply for nostalgia's sake.  I think the bulk of Western hymnody should be applicable to as many cultures as possible, because it has that much theological and artistic integrity.  It may have originated in Western cultures, but just like the message it declares, it can be universal in its applicability.

Why doesn't the church return those dreams of a white Christmas to Irving Berlin and Bing Crosby!  And why don't we instead sing:

In the bleak midwinter of mans' weary soul, 
    past the prophets' telling, silence from God's shoal;
Earth stood hard as iron, gloom as shrouds of snow, 
    in the bleak midwinter long ago.

- I edited the first verse of Rossetti's poem for a choral performance of this piece in 2007 at Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas.


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