What Flannery O’Connor said of the South is true of all America—but it seems truest at Christmas:
While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God.
In our post-everything, skeptical-yet-credulous world, people may not know Jesus, but they’re not starting from a place of absolute ignorance. By God’s amazing grace, Christ has a cultural foothold in America—through Christmas.
The stones cry out
Maybe there is a “war on Christmas” out there—but walk into any public place this time of year, and you’ll see it: tons of people to whom it has never occurred that Christ may really be Savior of the world spend a month or two singing and hearing words about Jesus.
And though there is plenty of Rudolph and jingle bell to go around in our culture’s Christmas songs (nothing necessarily wrong with that), there’s space left for good theology. Even in songs sung by unbelievers, he’s presented as judge and coming king, not just the inoffensive babe in a manger. The secular acapella group Pentatonix, for example, has sung these words to 30 million viewers:
He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of His righteousness.
That last line sounds like judgment to me. The hymn is famously ambiguous, of course: is it talking about Christ’s first coming or his second? Or maybe both, the already and the not-yet? Either way, judgment is in there, and people sing about it every year. Pentatonix has sung these words to 150 million:
Mary did you know that your baby boy is Lord of all creation… [and] would one day rule the nations?… That sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM.
Mary did know that her son was something unique in world history. Many Americans don’t or won’t, yet they sing that they do, that he is.
If all these Christmas songs sung by non-Christians seem normal to you, move to Lahore, Riyadh, or Ulaanbaatar and walk into public places there. Or better yet, try this thought experiment: replace references to Jesus in a Christmas song with references to Thor.
How much purchase would such a song have in our culture?
Many singers of our theologically rich Christmas songs in America disbelieve equally in the divinity of Thor and of Jesus. If Jesus is any sort of hero to them, he isn’t the biblical Jesus who cast the money-changers out of the temple and talked uncomfortably often about people’s sins—including cornerstones of our economy like envy and lust. If Jesus is their hero, he is one only on the level of, well, Thor. He’s a poster on the wall, a movie character, just not as ripped. He doesn’t need to exist any more than Frodo does to be a cool character for the Comicon pantheon.
Odin rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Thor, our hero
Was born on Wooden’s day
To save us all from Loki’s power
When we do our cosplay.
We Americans could easily (and might as well, given our actual level of Christian belief) be singing something like this as a culture. Why don’t we? Some people complain about Christ being pushed out of Christmas designs on coffee cups, but I’m just shocked he’s still around at all outside the confines of the Christian church. Why?
Christmas common grace
Grace. That’s my answer. God restrained the sin of Abimelech; he didn’t let him touch Abraham’s wife (Gen 20:1–7). Theologians call this restraint “common grace” to distinguish it from the special grace Christians receive. By that same common grace God has refused to let our culture forget his Son. There’s enough truth among the leftovers of Christendom to teach everyone major elements of the gospel. God has not left himself without a testimony.
Thank you, Christmas.
Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).