Saturday, November 28, 2009

Advent Conspiracy Campaign

In contrast to the “Stand for Christmas” campaign, I really appreciate the “Advent Conspiracy” campaign. The four pillars of the latter campaign are to (1) worship fully, (2) spend less, (3) give more, and (4) love all. Those are some principles I can really support. A link to the “Advent Conspiracy” campaign’s website is provided below.

In recent years, particularly as we became parents and we grew in appreciation of the voluntary simplicity movement, my husband and I have done our best in our own little part of the world to reclaim Christmas as a meaningful religious celebration. We have drastically cut the amount we spend on gifts. We have spoken with our relatives and have agreed to not exchange presents among the adults. Instead, we each use funds we might have otherwise spent on gifts to help make the holidays brighter for others. (I deliberately use the term “holidays” in this context because the beneficiaries of our efforts are not necessarily Christ followers who would celebrate Christmas or might celebrate it only as a secular holiday.)

For many years when we still lived in Texas, our extended family pooled our funds to buy gifts for abused children in foster care. (The following link to the Child Advocates website provides information on the Santa’s Wish List program, which is amazing: Each year, my husband and I took our own daughters shopping with us to help us decide how to use our budgeted funds to get as much on each of our assigned children’s wish list as possible. Even though our daughters were initially toddlers when we began participating in the Santa’s Wish List program, it was a great way to involve our children in the process, to help them understand that not everyone is as fortunate as we are, and to be grateful for our many blessings.

My husband and I also get our kids involved in deciding how to spend certain funds we’ve designated for the Christian anti-poverty charity, World Vision, which has a terrific Christmas catalogue:
Our daughters have enthusiastically selected mosquito nets, ducks, fishing gear, soccer balls, and other items to gift children in developing nations.

During advent (i.e., the season before Christmas), my husband and I try to emphasize within our own family the religious meaning of Christmas. I’m sure the grandparents think we’re scourges, but we’ve flat out told our daughters that there is no magical man named “Santa Claus” who flies around giving out toys on Christmas Eve. We explain there was once a nice man named St. Nicholas who gave presents to kids whose mommies and daddies did not have a lot of money. Now people dress up as Santa Claus to remember what a good man St. Nicholas was. We are honest with our kids about the Santa Claus myth for a variety of reasons, but a key reason is we want them to know the religious truth about Christmas and not get distracted by the secularization of the holiday.

Our family typically goes to church on Christmas Eve. On Christmas day, we stay home and enjoy each other’s company. In doing so, we deliberately try to down play the role of gifts. We have some for the kids, but we try to emphasize the spiritual reason for the holiday and spending time together as a family. We devote a lot of the day cooking yummy foods and playing games together. But one of the highlights of the day for us is making a homemade birthday cake for Jesus. We decorate the birthday cake with whatever the kids want, e.g., sprinkles, icing, candles, etc. One year they asked how old Jesus was so they would know how many candles to put on the cake. We explained the situation and then we mutually agreed to just put a dozen or so candles on the cake to avoid triggering the smoke detectors. At dinner time, when it is time to bring out the cake, we turn off the lights and illuminate the candles to sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus. Fortunately, Jesus is pretty generous and he lets us eat all of his birthday cake.

Luke 1:46-55

The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise

Mary responded,
“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands. He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”

Monday, November 23, 2009

Focus on the Family’s “Stand for Christmas” Campaign

On its website, Focus on the Family has recently indicated it is about to launch its annual “Stand for Christmas” campaign. The conservative Christian group has been upset that some companies leave the word “Christmas” out of their advertising or fail to mention “Christmas” by name as it greets customers. Below you will find a link to Focus on the Family’s announcement that the 2009 “Stand for Christmas” campaign will get underway soon.

Oddly enough, the past website posts on the campaign no longer worked when I was researching and drafting this blog post. As a result, I’ve instead provided a third party media description of the campaign from the Rocky Mountain News:

In the past, “Stand for Christmas” has published lists of retailers that are characterized as either “Christmas-friendly,” “Christmas-negligent,” or “Christmas-offensive” based on their use of the word “Christmas” in advertising and in stores. When I first heard of this campaign last year, I was frankly horrified. I became aware of it when listening to a local Christian radio station, and I was even more horrified by the enthusiastic response of listeners calling in to vow a boycott of stores that did not receive a “Christmas-friendly” label.

I too have been disgusted by what Focus on the Family refers to as the “secularization of Christmas.” However, to me, that secularization happens when we throw the word “Christmas” around too loosely, and it becomes more associated with an accumulation of material goods than with the birth of our Lord. I don’t see a connection between the birth of Jesus in a humble manger, and tying a big bow around a fancy car as an extravagant gift for your spouse. I think it blasphemes God to use the miracle of his son’s birth to encourage people to line up in a frenzy on Thanksgiving to await a turn to participate in a (sometimes deadly) stampede in a big box store. Even when no human being loses his or her life, where are the “family values” in such an experience?

While Focus on the Family is offended when sales clerks wish shoppers “Happy Holidays,” it offends me when retailers use the term “Christmas” in any way to justify their end of year marketing. To be clear, I certainly don’t begrudge the retail sector their end of year sales, which are critical to their ability to survive a competitive sector of the economy. But I just don’t appreciate them using Jesus in a sacrilegious way. I’d much prefer “holiday” advertising to “Christmas” advertising.

Though we are all Christians, the folks at Focus on the Family and I disagree on this issue; we seem to have a fundamentally different perspective on the significance of Christmas in American society. As I understand, the “Stand for Christmas” campaign is based in large part on the notion that the United States is a Christian nation and the roots of our holiday marketing are the religious holiday of Christmas. Perhaps I’m mistaken, but my understanding is that Focus on the Family wants to reemphasize those roots and stress the notion that we are a Christian nation (whatever that means). I disagree with that approach for several reasons.

First, I am pro-pluralism and anti-theocracy. I love Jesus, but think it is antithetical to Christianity that anyone would be forced to share my enthusiasm. It is a basic premise of Christian theology that God does not force himself on us, and instead we are each given free will to decide whether or not to follow him. Moreover, I am confident that if anyone studies Christianity, they too would embrace it. But I’m not in any way threatened by people who choose not to. Such a choice saddens me for a variety of reasons, but it’s not in any way threatening.

Second, Christmas is a sacred, beautiful holiday, and it is very important to me that it be preserved as such. It is not beneficial to anyone to have non-believers forced to wish store patrons “Merry Christmas” out of a type of political correctness. Moreover, it is frankly disgusting to me that Jesus’ birthday would be tossed around as an excuse to entice more customers into stores or to rack up debt on one’s credit card. That is not what Christmas means to me.

Matthew 21:12-13

Then Jesus went into the temple of God and drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves. And He said to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be called a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a ‘den of thieves.’”

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Christ the King Sunday

Today is the feast of Christ the King. The feast day was instituted in 1925 in the Catholic church by Pope Pius XI, but other Christian denominations have since adopted the feast—including Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians and Methodists.

In establishing the feast day, Pope Pius XI issued an encyclical called Quas Primas. The text of the encyclical is available at the Vatican’s website: It summarizes the scriptural bases for understanding Jesus to be a king, and then it explains the characterization. Pope Pius XI quotes Cyril of Alexandria who had explained that Christ had “dominion over all creatures, a dominion not seized by violence nor usurped, but his by essence and by nature.” The encyclical then states:

“This kingdom is spiritual and is concerned with spiritual things. That this is so the above quotations from Scripture amply prove, and Christ by his own action confirms it. On many occasions, when the Jews and even the Apostles wrongly supposed that the Messiah would restore the liberties and the kingdom of Israel, he repelled and denied such a suggestion. When the populace thronged around him in admiration and would have acclaimed him King, he shrank from the honor and sought safety in flight. Before the Roman magistrate he declared that his kingdom was not of this world. The gospels present this kingdom as one which men prepare to enter by penance, and cannot actually enter except by faith and by baptism, which, though an external rite, signifies and produces an interior regeneration. This kingdom is opposed to none other than to that of Satan and to the power of darkness. It demands of its subjects a spirit of detachment from riches and earthly things, and a spirit of gentleness. They must hunger and thirst after justice, and more than this, they must deny themselves and carry the cross... It would be a grave error, on the other hand, to say that Christ has no authority whatever in civil affairs, since, by virtue of the absolute empire over all creatures committed to him by the Father, all things are in his power. Nevertheless, during his life on earth he refrained from the exercise of such authority, and although he himself disdained to possess or to care for earthly goods, he did not, nor does he today, interfere with those who possess them. Non eripit mortalia qui regna dat caelestia.”

Matthew 16:24-28

Then Jesus said to His disciples, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? For the Son of Man will come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then He will reward each according to his works. Assuredly, I say to you, there are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the Son of Man coming in His kingdom.”

Friday, November 20, 2009

With God on Our Side (2004) (Choosing to Be an Advisor, Not a Prophet)

To me, the most fascinating part of the film came in the discussion of Reagan’s first term as president. After the election, Jerry Falwell held a press conference where he spoke with pride of a president and congress committed to helping conservative Christians enact laws and implement policies to make abortion illegal, permit “voluntary school prayer,” and restore America’s military might. In an interview for the film, Jerry Falwell later spoke of the feeling of “elation” from that election victory. Similarly, Ed Dobson (the vice president of the Moral Majority) spoke of the thrill of eating lunch at the White House. The film notes that in helping Reagan win the presidency, conservative Christians relished their proximity to power.

Early in Reagan’s first term, there was a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Falwell describes in the film that he was on vacation with his family when Reagan called him to tell him of his decision to nominate Sandra Day O’Connor to the Court and to ask Falwell to not raise opposition immediately. Anti-abortion activists were concerned about O’Connor’s pro choice voting record in the Arizona state senate. Nonetheless, Falwell explains in the film that he did agree to keep quiet and ultimately became a supporter of O’Connor’s nomination.

Ed Dobson then explains this decision with a “biblical paradigm.” He noted that in politics one could choose to be an advisor or a prophet. Dobson states:

If you choose to be a prophet, then you don’t have a lot of influence on the political reality, but you are always free to speak what you perceive to be the truth for the current historical moment. Or you can be an advisor with a sense of truth, a sense of value, but your objective is simply to influence the process. And I think the Moral Majority moved from a prophetic role into more of an advisor role and lost some of its ability to speak against, even the administration it was for.

To me, it seems clear that Dobson is saying the Moral Majority deliberately chose to compromise their sense of truth in order to have a seat at the table with Caesar. That is a stunning admission. In my own opinion, it was also a frightening, tragic choice.

Matthew 12:18

"Here is my servant whom I have chosen, the one I love, in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him, and he will proclaim justice to the nations.”

Luke 4:5-8

“The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendor, for it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. So if you worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.’”

Thursday, November 19, 2009

With God on Our Side (2004) (Mainstream Media Attitudes Towards Christians)

To me, one particularly intriguing segment of With God on Our Side was the film's focus on the news media’s reaction to Jimmy Carter when he first burst onto the national political scene. Carter professed that he was a “born again” Christian and declared that the most important thing in his life was his relationship with Jesus Christ. The film shows the media’s confusion over such statements.

Ken Briggs, the Religion Editor of the New York Times, explained that Carter’s profession of faith caught most mainstream reporters off guard. They had no idea what he was even talking about. Most reporters didn’t know what an Evangelical was. Briggs mentioned that to most reporters Carter’s description of his faith appeared “back-woodsy,” Southern and thoroughly suspect.

Cal Thomas, an Evangelical TV reporter and commentator, noted that the Washington Post had written that they didn’t know much about “this sort of thing” (referring to Carter’s faith) because they didn’t know any of “these people.” Thomas was incredulous that Evangelicals were referred to as “these people” and a major newspaper was unable to find any. He asked rhetorically, “What does [this] mean? Are they from another planet? Do they not have telephones? Are they unable to read books?”

Actual news footage is shown of Harry Reasoner asking Carter what that “born again business” was all about and whether Carter’s cabinet would be filled with Baptists. There was also footage of John Chancellor on the NBC Nightly News assuring viewers that the news program had investigated the religious meaning of Carter’s born again experience. With a note of surprise, Chancellor announced they had determined it was apparently not a rare phenomenon and others had experienced it as well.

Cal Thomas noted that millions around the country guffawed at the media’s need to investigate Carter’s faith experience to determine it was not odd. He analogized it to a hypothetical situation where the media investigated African Americans to determine they were indeed human or investigated women to determine they were in fact equal to men. Thomas said, “It is amazing to hear something like this from an educated person.”

Carter’s Press Secretary, Jody Powell, commented that most reporters at that time would never have gone to church every weekend unless it was going to advance their career in some fashion or otherwise produce some tangible benefit. As a result, the media were skeptical about Carter’s faith. Powell explained that they could not imagine Carter’s faith was sincere and felt there must be a cynical, exploitative motivation to going to church.

John 3:1-8 (Holman Christian Standard Bible)

There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Him at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher, for no one could perform these signs You do unless God were with him."
Jesus replied, " I assure you: Unless someone is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God."
"But how can anyone be born when he is old?" Nicodemus asked Him. "Can he enter his mother's womb a second time and be born?"
Jesus answered, " I assure you: Unless someone is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. Whatever is born of the flesh is flesh, and whatever is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be amazed that I told you that you must be born again. The wind blows where it pleases, and you hear its sound, but you don't know where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

Sunday, November 15, 2009

With God on Our Side (2004) (School Prayer As Political Motivation)

With God on Our Side insinuates that conservative Christians began to affiliate with the Republican Party after the Supreme Court determined that institutionalized prayer in the public schools was unconstitutional. This was apparently a galvanizing event. Frankly, I’ve never understood the “school prayer” issue. Those who are most active on the issue seem to phrase it as a question of permitting children to pray in school. However, this is of course quite misleading.

Prayer is typically a personal and quiet discipline. It can take place any time and any where without others even being aware. Such prayer is certainly not forbidden in public schools or anywhere else in our country. I’m very confident that such prayer take places constantly in most if not all public schools. Indeed, when I was a kid, I myself participated in such prayers all the time. Instead, the hot-button legal and political issue technically involves whether there will be institutionalized group prayer during the school day. I’m not sure why anyone would advocate that kind of prayer in a public school. Who would lead such prayer? If you have people of different faiths in the classroom, then one of two things will happen. Either the prayer will be watered down and made vague to avoid contradiction of the theological beliefs of some in the class, or the prayer will be more specific and will offend some teachers, students and/or parents. Neither option seems desirable to me.

Further, my thinking on the whole school prayer issue was crystallized when I was a grade school teacher (prior to attending law school) and realized the main focus of teaching is classroom management (i.e., maintaining order so kids don’t get out of line such that chaos prevents learning). I’ve seen first hand that classroom management and institutionalized worship are not happy bedfellows. My first year as a teacher I taught sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a Catholic school where we had institutionalized prayers several times each day and we attended mass as a group at least once a month. Initially, I was very excited about these group worship opportunities, but I soon came to dread them. Kids will be kids, and in my experience as a teacher even “good kids” are not inclined to be spiritually devout when their peers are around. It used to offend me deeply when my middle school students were playing during prayers or mass. Instead of showing respect to God, many would use the distraction and the gap in discipline to pass notes or communicate to one another in other covert ways. It was disillusioning to me that instead of being a leader or role model of faith to these young students, I was reduced to having to hand out demerits for infractions during prayer times or mass. Pragmatically, it was also very concerning to me that such a system likely turned many kids away from God at a critical, difficult time in their lives. Because of these experiences, I vowed that if I were ever a parent, I would never send my kids to a religiously affiliated school where God was mandated. Trying to force religion unfortunately has the opposite effect of what is intended. I would not recommend it to anyone.

As a teacher in a religious school, not only did I see that forcing kids to worship in a group setting was unsuccessful, I also used to be very concerned about the kids in the school who did have a budding faith in God. I worried about the impact on them when they saw their classmates being so disrespectful. Maybe some of them began to see faith in God as un-cool or silly as a result. Peer influences mean so much to young people. I would have much rather taken the kids with a budding faith in God to a church service of mature, respectful Christ followers. That would have provided better, more supportive role models. However, that was not an option.

With regard to the legal and political “school prayer” issue, I’m further perplexed because those who seem to be most adamant about the need for institutionalized group prayer in school tend to be from faith traditions where a personal, intimate relationship with God is emphasized. Such a relationship is primarily developed by an individual’s one-on-on time with God. Realistically, it does not seem that such a personal relationship is fostered by forced, impersonal group prayer in a secular setting. Instead, people are supposed to come to their own personal decision to accept Christ into their heart or to reject him.

Moreover, in such faith traditions, spontaneous prayer is typically emphasized over rote formulaic prayer. Pragmatically, it seems to me that such formulaic prayer lends itself best to a pluralistic, secular group setting where different faith traditions are represented. Only if one writes down and tweaks the wording of a given prayer ahead of time can one be sure to avoid references or phraseology that will offend some of the people being led in prayer. In my own opinion, that type of rehearsed precision tends to defeat the purpose of prayer. I am just not sure what proponents of institutionalized group prayer in public schools would hope to achieve.

Matthew 6:5-8 (Contemporary English Version)

When you pray, don't be like those show-offs who love to stand up and pray in the meeting places and on the street corners. They do this just to look good. I can assure you that they already have their reward. When you pray, go into a room alone and close the door. Pray to your Father in private. He knows what is done in private, and he will reward you. When you pray, don't talk on and on as people do who don't know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. Don't be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask.