Looking for Jesus

Elmorelian Christmas cave
Elmorelian Christmas cave

All three of our kids love this television commercial by Samsung. Two young adults sit at a bus stop, gaming against each other with their smartphones—symbolically, of course, a little gamesmanship between the Galaxy S III and the iPhone.

Upon losing, the iPhone user bemoans his phone’s screen size when compared to the Samsung. To which the winner responds: “Not everything’s about winning.” “I like to win,” retorts the iPhone guy. An elderly woman, observing this repartee, then wryly says the words that crack my kids up: “You like to whine.”

On December 11th the Linwood Holton Elementary School's children's choir brightly performed a pop-culture classic during the PTA-sponsored Winter Concert. Meanwhile, an Evangelical Christian friend of mine—a dad, with children at Holton like me—fired off this Facebook post: “The choir at my daughter’s elementary school Christmas concert is singing ‘Man in the Mirror’ by Michael Jackson. Hey, choir dude, remember Jesus?”

Although this friend later told me he was being “mostly funny and crotchety,” the post inversely channeled that old Christmas hymn: it was not joyful, and with the wrong sort of triumphant.

On most Holton school days our family has a fifth-grader, second-grader and first-grader trekking up and down the halls. My wife works for Richmond Public Schools as a Title I tutor at Holton. I winced at my friend’s mild incursion into the “culture wars,” but not because of those ties. Instead, I found myself pondering my particular ties to Jesus—that man accused of being forgotten.

Like my Evangelical friend, I believe in “remembering” Jesus at Christmas, especially in the middle of what has become a festival of hyper-consumption, which misses the point by several light years. Unlike my friend, however, I do not sense the need to yearn for a mention of Jesus’s name from the public school’s center stage.

So let’s talk about this, briefly.

First of all, the air at the holiday concert was already thick with cultural irony. No less than two songs before the children’s choir covered the late Michael Jackson, Holton’s music teacher had them crooning a simple song called “Do Unto Others.” Most religious types and not a few irreligious types would correctly identify this song as being derived explicitly from the teachings of Jesus.

Here is a critique for some Evangelicals: our blinding desire to defend Jesus against what we deem to be his lost currency in the public sphere has meant, strangely, that we often miss the Jesus who is there. He is embedded within the social fabric—all the while we go around huffing and puffing.

Second, the holiday concert in the public school provides a fine time to re-calibrate faith identity vis-à-vis cultural expectations. To use Mr. Jackson’s catchy tune: I’m starting with the faith in the mirror; I’m asking him to change his ways.

My friend admitted he was looking for an explicit Christ-acknowledgement from the microphone. Are you serious? I thought. While I’m not condoning a naked public square, devoid of religious expression, expecting government institutions to prop up the Christ of Christmas—in that setting—is not culturally realistic, no matter our national history.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life: “The newly elected 113th Congress includes 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 in Congress has been there since 2007. Religious pluralism is the landscape. (It has actually always been the landscape.) Evangelicals, in particular, must find a different way to play ball on this field.

For those who take up the cross of yester-year, Peter Berger’s admonition is clear. In these conditions, he says, there is no longer a religious or moral monopoly. More to the point, I would argue: this plurality of identities and worldviews can prepare the way for a more robust, counter-cultural Christian witness—one that is not wed to a sponsoring culture.

Finally, per the Samsung commercial, a third consideration for my tribesmen: No one likes a cultural whiner. Some Evangelicals, and other Christians, need to re-direct the energy. Being “faithfully present”—James Davison Hunter’s term—within the raging conversation of ideas is surely a more constructive and sustainable engagement.

During the concert at Holton, the children’s choir sang about love in various ways. As mentioned, Jesus was there—along with the King of Pop. The Beatles made an appearance through their signature anthem “All You Need Is Love.”

With some possible overlap, different visions of how best to re-make a wrecked world were on display. Personally I remain most compelled by God’s vision as personified in Jesus. Nonetheless, I appreciated the interplay of Jesus’s words with those of Lennon and McCartney. It makes for more inquisitive theological discussions around the dinner table. Not to mention the open and vibrant conversations with my neighbors.

In the end we really should pour a glass of wine, instead of whine, and be of good cheer! This is the very season that reminds us: God is more apt to reveal himself from backstage—in a smelly, lonely cave.

Christmas Postcard