An elementary school principal sent out a memo recently with guidelines as to what would be considered appropriate for classroom decorations and assignments during the holiday season. Teachers were reportedly told that sledding and scarves, the Frozen character Olaf, and other generic winter-themed items were acceptable.
Candy canes, however, were not.
According to the principal, they form the letter “J,” standing for “Jesus.” Christmas trees, reindeer, anything red or green, Christmas carols and music, and Santas were also on the forbidden list.
The school district quickly responded, stating that the memo “did not reflect district policy.” The district then placed the principal on administrative leave.
You might expect a story like this in a part of the country known for irreligiosity. But this happened in Elkhorn, Nebraska.
Ralphie Parker’s Christmas
My wife and I were invited by some dear friends to see A Christmas Story: The Musical last night in Dallas. The show is a stage production of the classic television movie. Set in the 1940s in Indiana, it tells the story of Ralphie Parker, a little boy who wants a Red Ryder Carbine Action Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas.
The comedy has been ranked America’s favorite holiday movie of all time. Our family watched the film every year on Christmas Eve. Last night’s musical was just as enjoyable.
Here’s the problem: for millions of Americans, A Christmas Story has become the Christmas story.
There’s nothing in A Christmas Story about Jesus. This is not a criticism–the story is intended to be a humorous tale about the challenges and joys of families during the holidays.
But the increasing secularization of our culture is turning holy days into holidays and Jesus into Santa. Nearly half of younger Americans say they have no religious affiliation; it seems unlikely that they will raise their children to become more religious than they are.
Where is this slippery slope away from Christian faith and morality taking us?
Returning to paganism?
New York Times columnist Ross Douthat is one of my favorite cultural commentators. In yesterday’s Times, he asked a fascinating and vital question.
Douthat notes that, while many of America’s churches are in decline, our religious impulse “has hardly disappeared.” He references a Gallup poll in which over 40 percent of Americans said a “profound religious experience or awakening” had redirected their lives, a number that has doubled since the 1960s. And he points to an increasing number of Americans who have regular feelings of “spiritual peace and well-being.”
How are we to reconcile our persistent spirituality and our declining religiosity?
Douthat turns to Steven D. Smith, a law professor at the University of San Diego, whose new book I have just begun reading. In Pagans and Christians in the City: Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac, Smith claims that we are returning to the pagan religious worldview that predated Christianity’s rise.
This worldview locates divinity inside the world rather than outside of it; God or the gods are part of nature rather than an external creator. Meaning, as Douthat describes Smith’s thesis, is therefore to be sought “in a fuller communion with the immanent world rather than a leap toward the transcendent.”
This old/new spirituality can allow for belief in the supernatural and eternal, but it focuses on the material and temporal. This brand of religion is therapeutic, a means of seeking harmony with the world and ourselves. It finds meaning less in revelation from outside us than in so-called truth discovered inside us.
“The chief danger that confronts the coming century”
I am convinced that Smith is right. A pagan culture would much prefer spirituality that requires no repentance and offers only affirmation. That’s why much of today’s most popular teaching in churches seems to focus more on personal therapy than on biblical theology. Who wouldn’t prefer a doctor who only delivers good news?
William Booth (1829-1912), the founder of the Salvation Army, predicted: “The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”
He was tragically right about our culture. But he doesn’t have to be right about our souls.
We can resist the pagan worldview Smith describes. We can say with Mary, “I am the servant of the Lord” (Luke 1:38). We can join the wise men in giving the Child our best (Matthew 2:1-11). We can make Jesus the King of our hearts and Lord of our lives.
In fact, we must–for our sake and for the sakes of everyone we influence. Christians cannot expect our culture to be more Christian than we are.
So let’s remember: The Christmas story is not about presents but the ever-present God. It is about Immanuel, “which means, God with us” (Matthew 1:23) and is now “God in us.”
When last did he change your life?