This piece was published as an Op-Ed in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on December 10, 2014.
In 2012, Samsung's televised skirmish with Apple produced this enjoyable offensive. Two young adults sit at a bus stop gaming against each other with their smartphones. It's the Galaxy S III versus the almighty iPhone.
Upon losing the game, the iPhone user bemoans his phone’s smaller screen size when compared to the Samsung phone. To which the winner responds, “Not everything’s about winning.” “I like to win,” says the iPhone guy. Observing this repartee, an elderly woman offers her quick-witted judgment: “You like to whine.”
Two years ago, in the run-up to Christmas, the Linwood Holton Elementary children's choir performed a pop-culture classic from Michael Jackson during the PTA-sponsored “Winter Concert." After the performance, a Christian friend of mine—a dad, who, like me, has children at Holton—fired off this Facebook post like a zealous reporter from the front-lines: “The choir at my daughter’s elementary school Christmas concert is singing ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson. Hey, choir dude, remember Jesus?”
Later, my friend told me he was being “mostly funny and crotchety.” Notwithstanding, the Facebook post inversely channeled that old Christmas hymn: it was not joyful, and with the wrong sort of triumphant.
As a Christian, I certainly believe in remembering Jesus at Christmas—especially in the middle of what has obviously become a festival of hyper-consumption and a dramatic cultural exercise in missing the point. Unlike my well-meaning friend, however, I do not sense the need to yearn for and sometimes stress-out over a specific mention of Jesus' name from the center stage.
First, consider this: The musical air at the holiday concert was already thick with cultural irony.
Two songs before the children’s choir covered the late King of Pop, the music teacher had the kids performing a song called “Do Unto Others.” Most religious types (and more than a few irreligious types) would correctly identify this song as being derived explicitly from the teachings of Jesus.
Here is a glaring critique tailored for certain evangelicals. Blinding desire to defend Jesus against what is deemed to be his irrecoverable lost currency in the public sphere has meant that we often miss the Jesus who is already there. As it turns out, there he was and there he is—in, around, and through the social fabric of American culture writ large. All the while we huff and puff on Facebook.
Second, the holiday concert in the public school provides an opportune time to re-calibrate Christian faith-identity vis-à-vis our cultural expectations in a pluralist context.
To adapt Mr. Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror”: I’m starting with that faith in the mirror; I’m asking it to change its ways.
My friend admitted he was looking for an unequivocal Christ-acknowledgement from the microphone. To which I thought, Are you serious? While I’m not condoning a "naked public square," a secularized space devoid of any religious expression, expecting government entities or institutions to prop up the Christ of Christmas is simply not culturally realistic. No matter our national history. Precisely because of our national history.
According to a 2012 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, “The 113th Congress include[d] the first Buddhist to serve in the Senate, the first Hindu to serve in either chamber and the first member of Congress to describe her religion as ‘none.’” The first Muslim to serve in Congress has been there since 2007.
Religious pluralism and multi-faith culture are the landscape, and Christians must find a different way to play ball on this field. In fact, this plurality of identities and worldviews can and should prepare the way for a more robust, counter-cultural Christian presence and witness—a faith-identity that is not wed to, enmeshed in, or domesticated by a sponsoring culture.
Third, and this is for the culture-warriors of all religious stripes or political colors, no one likes a whiner.
Obviously, some evangelicals (and other Christians) desperately need to re-direct the angst-y cultural energy. Faithfulness must replace fighting. And Christians shouldn’t confuse faithfulness with louder rhetoric or pet-policy battles. Paradigms of war and winning only distract us from building a constructive, winsome engagement with what is already there.
What would it look like for Christian individuals and communities to focus on being “faithfully present” within our culture—James Davison Hunter’s term—within the disparate and disagreeable conversations of ideas and values?
During the Holton concert, the children’s choir actually sang about “love” in several different ways. Jesus was there—right alongside the King of Pop. Not surprisingly, the Beatles also made an appearance through their signature anthem “All You Need Is Love.”
With possible overlap, differing visions of how best to re-make the wreckage of this unlovely, unloving world were on bright cultural display. Personally, I remain most compelled by God’s particular vision as personified and expressed in Jesus of Nazareth.
Nonetheless, I appreciated the interplay of Jesus’ words with those of Lennon, McCartney and Michael Jackson. It makes for more exciting theological and spiritual discussions around the dinner table. Not to mention, it opens a humble space for more meaningful conversations with our neighbors.
Good Christian, rejoice! Pour yourself a glass of wine and don't whine! God's way of revealing himself has never depended on a center stage. He is quite comfortable, in season and out of season, with the backstage—including hillside caves on the outskirts of very small towns.