Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Christmas is a Tough Season - Especially for Believers

So writes Ross Douthat in a recent op-ed column for the New York Times:

Christmas is hard for everyone. But it’s particularly hard for people who actually believe in it.

In a sense, of course, there’s no better time to be a Christian than the first 25 days of December. But this is also the season when American Christians can feel most embattled. Their piety is overshadowed by materialist ticky-tack. Their great feast is compromised by Christmukkwanzaa multiculturalism. And the once-a-year churchgoers crowding the pews beside them are a reminder of how many Americans regard religion as just another form of midwinter entertainment, wedged in between “The Nutcracker” and “Miracle on 34th Street.”

These anxieties can be overdrawn, and they’re frequently turned to cynical purposes. (Think of the annual “war on Christmas” drumbeat, or last week’s complaints from Republican senators about the supposed “sacrilege” of keeping Congress in session through the holiday.) But they also reflect the peculiar and complicated status of Christian faith in American life. Depending on the angle you take, Christianity is either dominant or under siege, ubiquitous or marginal, the strongest religion in the country or a waning and increasingly archaic faith.

Read it all.

The consumer culture's version of Christmas has largely triumphed over the Church's observance of Advent. Indeed, many of us may wonder why we bother with the season of Advent anymore at all. One clergy colleague put it like this: "I know clergy who honestly have no clue that Christmas is 12 days, only beginning on the 25th of December. I've resigned myself to the de facto truth that Western Christianity has lost the battle of secular Christmas and Advent is basically non-existent for most parishioners in any meaningful sense. I still keep it in common life as best I can, but honestly, it feels like a hopeless cause." And after all of the parties during December, trying to make a big deal out of the 12 days of Christmas is pretty much a lost cause (don't most of us take down all of our decorations by the end of Christmas Day anyway?).

Perhaps this is where Douthat's perspective is again helpful:

... this month’s ubiquitous carols and crèches notwithstanding, believing Christians are no longer what they once were — an overwhelming majority in a self-consciously Christian nation. The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.

Rather than give in to cynicism and wistful pining for a lost past (which is almost always a highly selective and even self-serving retrieval of the past), we do well to think through what it would mean to become "a creative and attractive minority." What might that look like in practice?

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