Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Jewish Rabbi's Take on "Holiday Trees"

This is an interesting viewpoint from Hirhurim Musings, a Jewish site devoted to discussing the Torah.

The US has lately had some controversy over municipal trees being called "Holiday Trees" instead of "Christmas Trees." Christians have objected to the name of their holiday being obscured in such an ambiguous term. In particular, Boston has been the site of a controversy this year over the naming of the tree. The man who donated the tree even said that had he known it would not be called a "Christmas Tree," he would not have given it to the city.

A representative of House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said, "To rename a Christmas tree as a holiday tree is as offensive as renaming a Jewish menorah a candlestick" (link).

I'll go one step further. While Christians consider the renaming of the holiday symbol an affront to their religion, I find it offensive to my Judaism. The implication is that the tree is a symbol of the various holidays celebrated in America, most notably Hanukkah that generally falls out around the same time as the Christian holiday (particularly this year). The tree is not. It has nothing to do with Judaism, Hanukkah or any of our holidays. Regardless of its historical origin, the tree has come to be a symbol of one of the most important Christian holidays. Using an ambiguous term that implies it has significance to Judaism is, in my opinion, extremely offensive to Jews (and presumably members of other religions) and is simply inaccurate.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Does Christ Belong in Wal-Mart's Christmas?

My good friend and resident theologian Bruce Roberts brought something of interest to my attention the other day. It seems that a lot of fuss has been made the last few weeks over the decision of some major American retailers to "take Christ out of Christmas." This marketing decision (and make no mistake - it is purely financial) has caught the attention of all the major news markets and has made very deep inroads into the reactionary evangelical community. Many are up in arms and ready to "storm the gates of hell" or at least the customer service desk of Target. Here's a sample from the American Family Association:
Several retailers have joined in the push to ban the use of "Christmas" in their in-store promotions and retail advertising. The new push to eliminate "Christmas" and replace it with "Happy Holidays," "Season's Greetings," etc. is gaining ground with several retailers participating.

While it is too late to make changes this year, we have already sent letters to several major retailers we have identified as participating in banning "Christmas," asking them to put Christmas back into their in-store promotions and retail advertising next year. We have sent letters to the chairmen of Target, Home Depot, Wal-Mart, Kmart/Sears, Costco, Kohl's and Lowe's about their practice. (Lowe's even refuses to promote their trees as Christmas trees, but calls them "Holiday Trees." Their toll-free number is 1-800-445-6937.)
That sounds alarming enough and probably raises the hackles of many of you. As for me, I find this humorous at best and embarrassing at its worst. Is this really the battle the Church of Jesus Christ is to fight on this earth? To fight WITH this world? Another has said it better than I could: "Isn't it interesting where we evangelicals often choose to draw battle lines with the world? We take personal offense when retailers make marketing decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with biblical standards of morality and yet heartily support them when they blatantly violate biblical standards."

I wish I had said this first but it is true: The world cares little about what we are against. To our shame, they also know little about what we are for.

I have asked this question a few other times regarding other subjects like "Justice Sunday" and the modern-day church's bent towards legislating morality by political and economic force - Why are we so concerned about unbelievers who don't honor God with their decisions? Why do we act so shocked that a secular world doesn't run its empire on the principles of the Bible? What do we want? Unbelievers who honor God? Is that even possible? Is it the aim of the church to build a society in which unbelievers live in full obedience to the biblical law. What if we succeed? What will we have accomplished? Not much - just a bunch of people who think they are doing good but are now twice as much the son of hell as they were before.

Let's think of it this way: Why are so many so upset that the retailers are no longer cheapening the glorious name of Christ in the name of making a few extra million dollars? Shouldn't we be glad that the name of Jesus is not pulled through the muck of this secularized holiday? The world has too long "USED" the church for financial gain. Yes, USED! If you don't believe me, think back to the marketing campaign for "The Passion of the Christ" and the upcoming "Narnia." I received a ton of free stuff from both movies asking us to hand out bookmarks and posters and other such things to get people to see the movie. Why did they ask me to do that? To save souls? To change lives? No, to stuff their pockets with our dollars! You can already get your Narnia action figures here! If taking someone to see the movie is evangelism, then giving them a six-inch plastic Aslan must guarantee results!

By the way, isn't "Narnia" produced by DISNEY? Weren't we boycotting them a little while back? What did they change so that now we are actively marketing for them? These movie companies are pimping the church out in some "grass-roots" campaign and we fall for it by rationalizing that these movies are the "best witnessing tools to come out in ages." Meanwhile, they count their millions and laugh at us! Sounds silly, doesn't it?

We have long anguished the fact that Christmas has become too commercialized (although Lifeway sure doesn't seem to mind selling its share of tawdry wares). Now that Christ is out of the commercialization, isn't the end result the same? The two are no longer equivalent. There is the secular side and, I suppose, the spiritual side remains somewhere. We probably just dont' recognize it.

Maybe we should be happy and rejoice that we can now celebrate the birth of our Savior without the cheapening effect of rushing past rabid shoppers while "Silver Bells" plays over the speakers as we fight for the last XBOX 360! Now we can join our families and churches in worship and singing and outreach and . . . wait, we want the commercialization as much as "they" do, don't we?

I find it hard to imagine the Apostle Paul getting riled up when Caesar refused to have some other apostle open the Colisseum gladiator games with a word of prayer. I am more incensed by the puny "prayers" read by local pastors off index cards before Panthers games, uttering nothing more than empty cliches and abundant "niceness." Can you see Peter writing a third epistle fussing about Caesar persecuting the church and calling for the elect scattered abroad to march on Rome? No, these men of God didn't fight the world with the world's weapons. And they were discerning enough to realize that those who are in the dark do not think like those of us who are in the light.

In our rush to play the fool's game of cursing the darkness, we fall into a very familiar trap. As Tom Ascol has said, "If I can point out how Christ-denying the world is then I can take some comfort in the thought that I am not that way. But isn't that the same tendency that our Lord condemned in the Pharisee in Luke 18? The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank You that I am not like other men--extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector."

He continues by saying, "Before we allow ourselves to get angry or depressed or disgusted with Christless celebrations of Christmas, we should ruthlessly evaluate our own lives. How Christ-centered am I? How Christ-focused are my thoughts? How Christ-saturated are my conversations? How Christ-honoring is my use of time? How Christ-exalting are my desires?"

Let's be honest - if we lived in the days of Christ's birth, we would have ruined it. We would have made pilgrimmages to that inn in Bethlehem, probably charging money with some of the day's best Christian talent singing new songs about the babe in the manger. We would have shorn some local sheep to make some wool shirts with catchy sayings - probably rhyming "reason" with "season." We would get into theological arguments about those crazy shepherds and their vision of talking angels. We would storm Herod's castle for his grisly practice of infanticide. Our burgeoning Christian empire would be booming. And all the while, we'd never notice that Joseph, Mary and Jesus had gone to Egypt.

"If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col 2:1-3).

PS - An interesting read is found here, where the writer examines just how other retailers take Christ out of Christmas and have been doing it for years.

PPS - I just went to and did a search using the word "Christmas." A total of 7,953 items appeared, including such traditional and deeply spiritual items as "A Chocolate Christmas" and "A Very Merry Kidz Bop Christmas" featuring the old-time classic "Go Christmas!"

Don't forget this stocking stuffer: "Nick Holiday" with Spongebob Squarepants singing "The Very First Christmas" and Jimmy Neutron "Basking in the Warmth of Christmas" and the Backyardigans declaring "Snow is Cold but I am Cool." Yes, this is worth fighting for!!!

Hey, I almost missed the "Jethro Tull Christmas Album." Jimmy Buffet has one, too - now there's a guy who knows the "Reason for the Season." This one beats them all, though - I give you Hugh Hefner's venture into our sacred holiday: Playboy's Latin Jazz Christmas. Aren't you glad Playboy uses the term "Christmas" instead of "Holiday."

It's getting late - I'm starting to get a little too cynical. Merry Holidays!

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

The SBC to FINALLY return to theology!

It has just been announced that Dr. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, and Dr. Paige Patterson, President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, will hold a debate on the subject of Calvinism at the 2006 Pastor's Conference in Greensboro, NC. The Pastor's Conference is held in conjunction with the annual Southern Baptist Convention each summer.

This past summer, in Nashville, more than a few pastors spoke at the Pastor's Conference and made more than a few disparaging (and patently dishonest) statements against the Reformed doctrine of salvation. Click to read about the messages from Johnny Hunt and Jerry Falwell.

Tom Ascol of the Founder's Ministry has this to say on his website:
While some will no doubt be very nervous to hear about these plans, such a debate holds promise of accomplishing much good in SBC life.

Why do I say that? It is not because I am persuaded that "our side" will "win" such a debate. Nor is it because I think this event will expose errors in the anti-Calvinism schemes. Rather, I think this holds great hope for being beneficial for two reasons. First, it will be helpful simply because it will be a theological debate. Southern Baptists will actually be sponsoring an event that intentionally and formally is examining theological issues. Many Southern Baptists--especially younger Southern Baptists--are weary of the constant pep rallies for denominational programs that take up so much of the agenda at the annual SBC meeting. There is a great desire for something more substantive, something that examines foundational issues which have long been neglected by denominational leadership. A debate about Calvinism could well provide an opportunity for that to happen.

Secondly, I am hopeful about this announced event because Drs. Mohler and Patterson are friends. I fully expect that their exchange--regardless of how formal or informal the format--will provide a model for theological dialogue. Our day has all but lost the art (and Christian responsibility) of disagreeing strongly about important matters without writing your opponent out of the kingdom. This is especially true when the subject is Calvinism and it is equally true of those on both sides of the issue. An example of Christian leaders talking pointedly, pressing biblical arguments determinedly and disagreeing strongly (assuming that this will be the case) can only be a helpful thing for modern Southern Baptists. It will be great to see 2 Southern Baptist seminary presidents leading the way in this kind of effort.

I will make a couple of predictions: 1. This debate will draw larger crowds than any other session at the Pastors' Conference or the SBC meeting. 2. Some denominational leader will lament that fact. In addition, I would suspect that the average age of those attending the debate will be much younger than the average age that attends the 2 days of SBC meetings.
I do believe I will drive the 50 miles to attend.