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So yesterday I spent a lot of my day being annoyed with Focus on the Family. I have mixed feelings about them as an organization. Through publications like Boundless and the now-defunct TrueU (I have written for both), they provide thoughtful resources for young Christians. Founder James Dobson got his start as a counselor giving advice to families, and you know what? As a parent, I think he gives pretty good advice. I even quote him, favorably, in my upcoming revision to Guy’s Guide to Life.
Focus on the Family does OK when they actually, you know, focus on the family. But I absolutely do not like when Focus on the Family gets focused on things like politics and culture wars, because inevitably they get sidetracked. Non-issues become super-important. Big issues get lost.
Case in point: the war on Christmas. I feel a rant coming on.
FotF wants us to “Stand for Christmas“ by taking part in a rate-a-retailer campaign they’ve devised in order to convince retailers that they need to keep Christ in Christmas. Their stated point is “to assist you, the consumer” in making a wise decision about where you spend your Christmas money. Because as the Bible says, we should only shop at Christian retailers who say the word “Christmas.” (Wait…the Bible doesn’t say that? What?!?)
So they list a bunch of retail chains, and you can rate their Christmasy-ness based on whether or not their signage and catalogs say “Merry Christmas!” (Good!) or “Happy Holidays!” (Evil!), and whether they feature religious decorations (mangers, angels) or generic holiday decor (snowmen).
The result? According to their “up-to-the-second” ratings, Banana Republic is 83% offensive to Christians (apparently BR employees are instructed not to say “Christmas”). Old Navy is 58% offensive, probably based on interactions like this posted one: They had the store looking very nice but I did not hear any Christmas music! When I said “Merry Christmas” the employee responded with “Happy Holidays.” I then said no “Merry Christmas” and he just walked away!!!
(I would walk away from you, too, if you replied to my seasonal greeting with rudeness.)
Kohl’s, however, is only 4% offensive. Because its cashiers have been known to say “Merry Christmas.”
I am offended. I’m not terribly offended by Banana Republic or Old Navy. I’m not even 4 percent offended by Kohl’s. I am offended at the idea of a Christian group rating secular stores on how much they embrace Christmas. Why? Let me count the ways.
1. It offends me logically. Old Navy is a clothing store. It is a secular retailer. It is not a Christian store. Why are we concerned that secular retailers are not exhibiting religious behavior? They are not a religious entity. They are trying to attract customers — as many customers as possible, some of whom are not religious. It’s like the local mosque being offended because I, a Christian, am not praying five times a day toward Mecca. It’s like me being offended that my dog doesn’t type very well. He’s a DOG. He’s not supposed to be typing.
2. It offends me historically. The whole “taking Christ out of Christmas” thing sorta loses flavor for me when you look at the history of Christmas. For at least the first couple centuries of Christianity, the Church didn’t celebrate Christ’s birth. There WAS NO Christmas. Christ’s resurrection was a huge commemoration, but no one gave any thought to noting (much less celebrating) his birth.
That is, until Constantine needed to legitimize Christianity in Roman society in the 3rd century. One of the ways he did it was by injecting Jesus into Saturnalia, the popular Roman winter solstice festival. That way the Romans could keep their major holiday and the Church could get some religious mileage out of it, too. Should we boycott stores that “Take Christ out of Christmas” by watering down the holiday? Only if we’re OK with Roman pagans picketing us because we watered down Saturnalia by mixing it with Jesus. (And don’t get me started on all the other Christmas traditions — gifts, mistletoe, trees — that have pagan origins. Are they bad? No. But they’re not originally Christian. We don’t own them.)
3. It offends me socially. You know what kind of retailer rating I’d like to see? I’d like to see one that rates them based on how they treat people. Like, do they use sweatshop labor? Is their clothing made by nine-year-olds in the Philippines? How do they treat their employees here? I could care less about what they say at the check-out stand or what signs they display. What’s more important to me is what they do. It occurs to me that Jesus made this very distinction in taking offense at the Pharisees — he condemned them for hiding their evil behind nice, clean appearances. Based on the logic of this campaign, it doesn’t matter if a company exploits their workers. What matters is whether or not the catalogs say “Christmas” on the cover. A Jesus who cared about taking a stand for Christmas today would have to be a Jesus who, in the Bible, praised the Pharisees for advertising their ritual cleanliness while neglecting widows and orphans. If you find that Jesus in the Bible, let me know, because I can’t.
4. It offends me morally. What about consumerism and greed? That doesn’t come into question at all in this campaign. Stand for Christmas isn’t telling you to spend less this Christmas. It’s not telling you to stand against culture by curbing your materialistic tendencies. It’s not telling you to focus less on getting and more on giving, which I think should be a pretty big part of the Christian holiday message. No…it’s telling you to keep on being a consumer, as long as you’re consuming from the proper Jesus-confirmed sources.
5. It offends my sense of consistency. You know what would be interesting? Instead of rating secular stores on how secular they are — which is stupid (see #1) — what if we rated churches on how secular they’ve become? How much do they talk about Jesus, versus how much they talk about Gospel-free subjects like living a Joel Osteen-approved “best life now” or claiming one’s financial blessings? How much of their resources do they spend on the poor, versus how much they spend on lighting and media? Forget the secularization of Christmas. What about the secularization of Christianity the rest of the year?
If I think hard enough, I can probably come up with a few more reasons. But I’m tired of thinking about the subject because it’s just so dumb. It’s not that I hate Christmas. I love Christmas. I love the idea of the incarnation and what it means. I also love the ideas of the Santa Claus tradition (which actually does have its foundations in Christianity) and trees with twinkly lights and pe
ace on earth and goodwill toward men. And I love to give and receive gifts. It’s just that I think the outrage about the Christian-ness of Christmas is silly and misguided.
If we really are in a culture war, then “happy holidays” outrage is like finding a wounded soldier out on the battlefield. He’s lost his left arm. He’s in shock. He’s bleeding out from a mangled shoulder stump. But what catches our attention is — oh, no! — a paper cut on his right arm! We’ve got to take care of THAT! A war is waging! So we devote all our attention to that paper cut. We mess around calling for help and slapping band-aids on the paper cut and warning others against similar paper-cut injuries. We wail and scream about this terrible war that has caused such paper-cut tragedies. We’re busy! We’re helping! We’re making a difference!
Meanwhile, there are other, more important things to think about. Like the bloody stump, which probably should have our attention. Don’t you think?
Let’s worry about the big stuff. Rant over. Happy holidays!
• A great resource against the consumerization of Christmas in churches (and everywhere else) is Advent Conspiracy. Love what they do and what they’re about.
• Update: My friend Kevin Hendricks has a similar post, which I should have read before saying pretty much the same thing here.