Christmas Spirit in Space and Time
By Rick Pearcey
The joyous Christmas season has become increasingly secular, religious, and fragmented, helping make the most wonderful time of the year perhaps also the most manipulative. We celebrate, and that is good, even healing. And given the hectic pace of life in America, there is much to admire in our ability to rise to the occasion of Christmas festivity every December.
But on a deeper level, the awe and cheer that attend a Holy Night and a Christmas Day seem more than ever to rest upon cultural understandings weak and eroding. Consider how fact today is alienated from meaning, “faith” from life, spirit from matter, and wonder from the real things of life in a searching, troubled world. The optimism of a new beginning in a New Year fades when we lose touch with secure points of reference by which to measure hope and find comfort in progress. Power elites employ malleable symbols of religion and politics to manipulate money and masses towards results that overturn the original content of words and action rooted in history.
There is a remedy for this, and it is found in the humane and concrete realities of the events that started it all some 2,000 years ago. What follows is a kind of Christmas and New Year’s debriefing related to information given in Luke 2, where familiar but revolutionary words await: “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).
What Luke gives us is part of a narrative that has comforted many millions of people around the world and throughout history. And yet, in this passage is no mere comfort. For in it is a cosmos of light and humanity that challenges settled expectations about what many regard as normal life in enlightened society. To help us unpack something of the power of this passage, let’s consider each of its four elements in turn.
“And the Shepherds Returned”
First, in contrast to pagan, religious, media, and secular stereotypes, Christmas is about real people living and working in a real world. The inaugurating events of Christmas occur in and around Bethlehem of Judea. They concern watchful shepherds, pregnant women, and surprised husbands. All are flesh-and-blood people. All are individuals who think, act, wonder, emote, and make choices in situations of life that are less than ideal.
In the foreground of Luke 2:20 are shepherds. They are persons who work, can be frightened by sudden events, are curious, and are willing to check out things for themselves. They are not identified as “believers.” Rather, they are choosing beings who process information and labor outdoors in the fields day and night in all sorts of weather. They do not live six feet off the ground, tip-toeing through life on a cushion of holy air, protected by a nice God from the ups and downs of existence in a broken world. They face predators and thieves, living and dying. They search for stray lambs, and they respond appropriately to unexpected beings who go bump in the night.
In their work, the shepherds keep a protective physical distance between flock and predator, whether man or animal. In their humanity as creatures made in the image of God, they keep a protective critical distance between well-grounded information about God and new but untested messages from angelic beings who show up without so much as a knock at the door.
The events of the Nativity concern God, man, angels, and words of salvation, but it is a mistake to conceive of them as “religious.” Quite unlike “faith” in a progressively fragmented world today, the data about the birth of Christ in the Christmas of history is about a tangible world and knowable events in an objective universe of space and time, cause and effect. It is about hopes and dreams connected to geography, dirt, history, and fields, not private imaginations and imperishable souls being released from the dark confines of matter in an escape to Mt. Olympus and the comforting arms of gods made in the image of Greek mortals.
Identifiable places matter when you’re talking about a living God who has decided to act into human history. The Creator of matter respects the space located between the ears of human beings and knows the human brain is more than so many pounds of meat atop a set of shoulders. Rejected here are politically correct beliefs about the brain as a product mysteriously organized by chance (or by unaccounted-for “law”) to achieve a savage but temporary survival of the strong over the weak in a meaningless, dying universe. Instead, we have in the Biblical data a regard for persons as thinking individuals of great intrinsic dignity; they are not regarded as easily unpluggable though complex machines that process bits of information. The Creator expects shepherds and carpenters, students and rabbis, prostitutes and tax collectors to concentrate their minds and to think freely about facts and evidence in a search for wisdom that may challenge current understandings.
The shepherds occupy an external, orderly world that provides a stable context in which ideas can be communicated and truth-claims checked for their veracity. In contrast to mythology about warfare between science and the Creator, the Biblical worldview affirms matter as good and orderly and provides a foundation for the scientific enterprise, as Nancy Pearcey discusses in her article “Christianity Is a Science-Starter, Not a Science-Stopper.” The Biblical framework also gives a basis to resist cults of religion, politics, or holiday sales. It challenges the imposition of any pious imagination, activist agenda, or news broadcast that refuses to subject theory to fact. The Christmas of history operates in this kind of earthy framework. It is good, wholistic news for a splintered, fragmented world that can no longer complete the circle. That good news doesn’t make life easy, as a pregnant woman who traveled by donkey some 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem might be able to tell you.
The events of Luke 2 show a respect for time. The action occurs at night, those hours of the 24-hour day between the setting and the rising of the sun. At a particular moment in the history of a particular night, darkness was pushed back by light. The content delivered by angels required a quantifiable number of moments to communicate, as did the shepherds’ trip into Bethlehem, as did their return, as did the trip of a mom to Bethlehem, as well as the passage of a baby through a birth canal. The long-promised flesh-and-blood child was placed in a manger at a particular moment of world history. Quirinius was governing in Syria, Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome. He had been the leading power in the empire since 31 B.C. when he defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. All was made official in 27 B.C. when Augustus became Rome’s first emperor.
Mary and Joseph, Cause and Effect
Cause and effect has little to do with modern-day religion, private spiritualities, personal ethics, Eric Hoffer’s “true believer,” varieties of religious experience, or with assorted “people of faith.” Let us also not discriminate against orthodox secularists and naturalistic scientists who create their own private truths and valued feelings in an effort to cope as humans with an otherwise unbearable life. The standard line these days is that questions directed to these private realms are considered impolite, out of bounds, and over the line. Presidential candidates get to pass “Go” and collect votes if they promise their faith really is just theirs -– that is, something merely private and inward, not public and not applicable to policy. The Creator, and the information he communicates about life in the world, is permitted to inspire during devotions inside closets or during limited times of public tragedy, but he shall have no substantive impact on public life, foreign policy, and so on.
In contrast to a retreat into subjectivity, the Biblical mentality, including the world-altering events that launched Christmas in the first place, has much to do with the natural order. The Bible knows that messages and songs and other intellectual and aesthetic content come not out of nothing. Roman edicts are the creations of Roman Caesars, inns too full are the effects of a finite number of rooms plus many travelers hitting the road at the same time. First-century people did not have electricity, but they knew night skies are not illuminated to reveal familiar daytime geography without a cause of light. What is given in the Bible is a framework for distinguishing between campfires and angels, both of which are natural phenomena in a cosmos that is the product of a living Creator. But both of which are also supernatural in a cosmos that is reduced, as some theorize, to particles cold and unaccounted for, arranged without reason in greater or lesser degrees of complexity.
Joseph and Mary knew where baby humans come from, how they are conceived, and how they arrive. “There is one thing often said about our ancestors which we must not say,” C.S. Lewis writes in his essay “Miracles,” in God in the Dock (emphasis in original). “We must not say ‘They believed in miracles because they did not know the Laws of Nature.’ This is nonsense.” Why? Because “when St. Joseph discovered that his bride was pregnant, he was ‘minded to put her away’. He knew enough biology for that. Otherwise, of course, he would not have regarded pregnancy as a proof of infidelity.”
Mary and Joseph had questions that speak to this issue of cause and effect. How could she be pregnant without physical relations with a man? Should Joseph reconsider marriage since knowledge of the natural order indicates Mary is not the virgin she claims to be? They received answers that are reasonable in light of information from a Creator who has within himself the power of being and is free to act into history, just as human beings are empowered to act as well. In effect, the God of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and David says he will again act into human history, into what after all is his cosmos, to bring about a physical change in the living, physical environment he created in the first place.
Though she is not married, and although people will talk, Mary is asked by God whether she would like to be the virgin mother of the Messiah (see Luke 1:26ff). For his part Joseph is asked, in effect: “Do you take this virgin with child as your lawfully wedded wife, seeing as I have used my power to create to conceive a baby in her womb?” Joseph also knew eyebrows would be raised, but he agreed to move forward (see Matt. 1:18ff). Mary showed herself to be a woman of strength who by her choices maintained her dignity.
People one might call secular supernaturalists balk at all of this. Many contemporary eyebrows have bought the notion that cause and effect has arisen from a universe that either a) popped into existence out of absolute nothingness (for which there is no evidence), b) is self-caused (an incoherent self-contradiction), or c) has existed eternally as impersonal dust, rock, emptiness, and particles -- in which man as a personal being becomes an unexplainable, alien lifeform permanently homeless in cold, dark space. This astounding naturalistic miracle has an unfortunate benefit for some. If you are a dictator looking for fodder for a revolution, or a Silent Night-singing camp guard bothered in your conscience by your job at Dachau, it’s a ready crutch to help you make it through the night.
The presumed miracle-working power of secular supernaturalism makes the singular wonder of a Virgin Birth look like child’s play. Science closed down by naturalistic philosophy defies logic, lacks evidence, denigrates humanity, and makes a mockery of justice, love, family, friendship, holidays, and celebration. Human beings, regardless of what some might say on the surface of their lives –- but in how they live and in how they think -- defy it with every fiber of their being and with all that we know of ourselves as significant individuals who observe on a daily basis the creative link between mind, personality, cause and effect. What is needed is courage to ask about the cause of effects such as human personality, curiosity, rational thought, and the phenomenon of a stable, orderly universe that allows regular people to travel with confidence from the fields into town and back again to discover first-hand that words from empirically available angels correspond to the empirical realities of baby and manger not far away.
Yes, from the standpoint of philosophical materialism, one would agree that Mary and Joseph received answers that were not reasonable. If matter -- cold, lifeless nature -- is all there is, was, or ever shall be, that certainly would have to be the case. But that reductive understanding of life makes a whole host of phenomena unreasonable -– not just a Virgin Birth or angels from on high but also other realities too big for the test tube, including mind, meaning, aesthetics, freedom, choice, ethics, love, etc. Even the words “physics” and “chemistry” are lost to humanity in a materialistic cosmos, for they are laden with information that is independent of the material medium that carries their message. Even if one presupposes the eternality of matter, the impersonal begets the impersonal begets the impersonal, and no amount of time or complexity gives one a consistent, observable basis from which to adequately explain (much less affirm) love or babies or justice or beauty. These are a level of being qualitatively different from chemical reactions, protoplasm, or chance arrangements of atmospheric dust at certain times of day (dusk or dawn).
Materialism rejects angels, but cannot explain shepherds. It rejects the Virgin Birth, but cannot explain the shepherds’ children. The Biblical information affirms a much richer, humane awareness of the wonder of life and its possibilities on earth. The Creator of the reproductive cycle knows how to start life without the participation of a male human and can discuss with Mary some of the particulars. This approach reflects an openness to phenomena outside the materialistic box, but it does not require blind acceptance of any claim to truth based on any particular kind of supposed experience, whether from God, angel, man, government, or machine. If you want information, go to Bethlehem: Ask, study, seek, find. The Biblical framework gives a basis for, and calls for, testing all things (1 Thess. 5:21). Unlike materialism, this is good for people and for science.
“Glorifying and Praising God”
But humans today are increasingly asked to live in a fragmented world of image, feeling, and PR. A candidate for president of the United States can tell Americans that Christmas is the season of miracles, but what about the rest of the year? Is God alive December 25, but dead by January 1, not able to survive the party? In contrast to warm fuzzies delivered by admakers, politicians, and ministry machines, the Christmas of history is about the objectivity and unity of truth in the midst of tremendous challenge. The Good News of salvation concerns hope despite the tragedy of a humanity spoiled yes by sin, but the individual is not materialistic junk. Ontologically speaking, man is fundamentally good and worthwhile. We have made a mess of things, but there’s still some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for, as Frodo’s friend Sam says in The Lord of the Rings. Christmas is a message of whole and holy healing for humanity’s ethical fall into sin and darkness, and it is a solution set forth in the context of a humane and Godly connection between fact and reason, hope and meaning.
That’s what we meet in the second element of Luke 2:20, where the shepherds are “glorifying and praising God” as they return from Bethlehem. This behavior demonstrates a straightforward, healthy, and connected approach to life. The shepherds know already what it means to praise a co-worker for returning a wandering sheep back to safety. They understand that glory is due when predators are routed because a shepherd stands with courage. As humans subject to death, they would know about fear and sorrow and loss if a lamb is found too late. It is a life situation where spouse and siblings in herding families offer glory and praise for work well done, food on the table, milk to drink, and clothes to wear.
In the information of Luke 2, the glorifying and praising is directed to work well done by the living God. This is excitement related to information given by angels in the same fields where human action to save endangered animals would have been honored by words of affirmation.
Reason, Objectivity, “My Truth”
But it is important emphasize that this glorifying and praising of God upon the return of the shepherds is not a religious act, in the sense of “religion” and the kind of “faith” we hear about today. Instead, the shepherds are responding as any reasonable human being might respond after observing the kind of phenomena described by Luke. They are responding to a set of challenging events that occurred while they were doing their jobs in terrain they knew like the palms of their hands. Theirs is a reasonable and heartfelt response to empirical information. It concerns not “their truth” or “my truth” where religion operates in a safe place or on approved dates of the year (though the names of holidays may be changed to protect the children). In this way “religious” events and “people of faith” are protected from inquiry but also are isolated from necessary educational, scientific, and political challenges outside the confines of one’s private heaven in an earthly closet.
What is presented in the history of Christmas occurs in the world of objective information, not mere feelings, private “faith,” or attempts to construct one’s own reality on the tabula rasa of a blank, indifferent cosmic canvas. This real-world orientation includes fields, paths into town and back, Bethlehem itself, Mary and Joseph tired and worn out, and a baby in a manger. This is wholeness without halos, a this-worldly emphasis that stands in epistemological continuity with the facticity of angels who occupy space and require ticks of the clock to deliver words of world-historical importance.
The angels are like humans insofar as they are personal beings who make significant choices and are not machines predetermined by an impersonal cosmos. But one way these angels are unlike humans is that they have not made a mess of heaven (others tried, but the coup failed), while we humans have successfully made a mess of things on earth. Attending the appearance of these messengers is light that illuminates familiar surroundings at night, so that human eyes see colors and sights at 3 a.m. that they usually observe at 3 p.m. But whether by angel-light or daylight, it’s the same factual world of space, time, cause and effect, in which significant personal beings make choices and change history.
The Biblical Christmas affirms reason. This includes the free-thinking rationality of man as male and female created in the image of a reasonable God who loves both form and diversity, creativity and unity. But it is not cold rationality separated from the wholeness of human personality. In the Biblical context, as in all healthy human living, shepherds and kings, poets and prophets, prisoners and paupers can shout out to their hearts’ content about what angels have said and what a living God is doing at a particular moment in history. This can be done as whole persons with free minds wide awake in schools, soccer stadiums, and halls of Congress. It is the world of Johnny’s learning to read and of minds questioning authority, Ronaldino’s futbol creativity and Jesus’s carpentry, Caesar’s rule but also the inability of enemies to keep dead the King of Kings. Hope and meaning join hands with fact and reason in a coherent unity of praise and wonder for God and man, angel and earth, lion and lamb, but also for love and beauty, courage and persistence, and progress towards final victory over disease, death, and decay. Reality does not split apart, humans do not fragment, in the earthy spirit of the historical Christmas.
The contrast with contemporary times is stark, where holidays have lost touch with past events, human nature, and public meaning. Holiday is now alienated from the concept of a holyday that benefits the whole person. Instead, individuals are viewed as masses to be stimulated into extended occasions of busyness and buyingness. We have Holy Night and secular day in the pursuit of privatized meanings in zones made safe for secularism but not for man whose life is more than bread alone.
Christmas now is challenged by multicultural fragmentation, spiritual poverty, and a disconnect from the human need to explain the existence and form of the real world. Instead of finding reasonable answers that fit all the data of life, a “progressive” society relies on symbols that can be manipulated according to the electoral, social, or marketing needs of the moment. Without a fixed point by which to judge progress, we self-medicate our pain and lack of direction by recasting wrenching dichotomies and spiritual schizophrenia as liberation and tolerance.
We still celebrate. Just as human beings cannot not work (as Solzhenitsyn noted in The Gulag Archipelago), even so human beings also cannot not celebrate (having been made in the image of a celebrating God). This is why fragmentations hurts and sensitive people seek ways to feel better about themselves. We see appeals in media to be distracted with wine, women, celebration, and multiculturalism, lest disquieting questions resurface to ask whether submissiveness to advertisers, impersonal matter, December inertia, impulse buying, and privatized coping in the midst of unresolved concerns is really all there is.
Fortunately, the demands of human nature made in the image of the Creator of nature will not be denied, no matter how many white-coated mystics dance upon the head of a materialistic pin. Materialism packaged as science tries to relieve the pressure by saying man is but a machine of greater or lesser complexity. But that theory won’t hunt outside the lab or faculty lounge. Wives treated that way will give their husbands more to wonder about than they bargained for, but little to celebrate. Children will revolt, not because they are sinners, but because they are humans. Rather that fill them with drugs, perhaps we should listen to their questions.
“For All They Had Heard and Seen”
The third element of Luke 2:20 specifies that Christmas is about the visual and aural validation of answers from God. Rather than a religious truth or spiritual technique that escapes the world, Christmas lives down the street. It is alive to the real world and is one of those things that can be “heard and seen.” Hemingway, who grew to hate generalities but love discrete facts, could have given the manger scene an address in one of his novels.
The very livelihood of the shepherds depended upon their ability to excel at hearing and seeing. If the shepherds had had, let us say, no ability to perceive empirical realities, then clearly no number of angels from on high, no matter how sudden, loud, or bright their appearance at night, could have averted the attention of the shepherds, much less give them the jolt of a lifetime.
Alive to Sight and Sound
The angels are free agents of God who were seen, delivered a message that was heard, and then returned to Heaven, which, by the way, may well have streets and addresses. There may also be motorcycles, sportsplexes, and ways to improve one’s skills in craftsmanship, for while the Creator despises sin, death, and decay, he loves creativity, action, physicality, aesthetics, and so on, all of which belong to that category of “good” he talked about in Genesis back at the beginning of this world. The “new heavens” and “new earth” are not likely to be boring places (Is. 65:17). “Angels We Have Heard on High” are real creatures operating in space and time, not magical beings created by the fear and imaginations of shepherds. These angels can be observed by human eyes, with no need of 3-D glasses or suspended disbelief in dark theaters. When these angels speak, they communicate content that can be heard and processed by individuals with the same kinds of ears that listen for wolves in the night.
The angels themselves are alive to sight and sound, and so also is the content of their message. At first only one angel appears, and he tells the shepherds to not be afraid. That limited introduction may well be an act of compassion, for the unexpected appearance of a “multitude” of messengers might have been more than shephardic circuitry could bear. The angels give reasons the shepherds should not be afraid: There’s good news that coheres with previous verified information from God, the Savior has been born, and you can check it out.
Even though the Nativity concerns God, angels, information from Heaven, and so on, let us remember that what is described is not a “faith” experience at all. That kind of “faith” may flow rather nicely with the agenda of secularists working harder than Santa’s elves to keep Christmas domesticated, safely tucked away in private realms of glorious, subjective experience. But the long-awaited Savior of history is a fact born in a specific locale on planet Earth, and not very far away. The City of David is within walking distance, just over a hill or two.
Just in case the shepherds don’t get the hint, the first angel tells them, “This will be a sign for you” (Lk. 2:12). A “sign,” such as a traffic sign, is an object posted for public view so that people will be informed about how to drive properly. The “sign” the angel brings up refers to a living public object “posted” in a manger, so that shepherds who see and hear will have a way to evaluate the truth status of what the angel is saying and to observe what God is doing in human history that very night.
It’s then, in the course of a holy night with a timeline, that “a multitude of heavenly host” appears praising God (Lk. 2:13). Again, this unfolds in the context of geography and empirical knowledge, with events occurring in ways consistent with cause and effect. The angels leave the scene, and then the shepherds say, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing which has happened” (Lk. 2:15). They went, they saw, they were glad. They saw flesh-and-blood people named Mary and Joseph. They saw a baby occupying space, "lying in a manger," inside the particular geography of the shelter where he was born. “And when they saw it,” says Luke 2:17, then “they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.” In the first Christmas, real people had something to say to other real people on the basis of extraordinary, observable events that occurred in the real world. This may challenge the hopes of secular faith, but truly free thinkers don’t mind a jolt here and there.
But is all this talk of seeing and hearing really Biblical? Pietistic secularists or liberal religionists may be indeed taken aback at such brazen objectivity, such lack of “faith.” But the Bible consistently affirms the public validation of truth claims, whether these claims concern testimony in court, questions about prophetic status, affirmations of a resurrection, the authority of the Messiah to forgive sins, the division of waters for escape routes, messages from angels, and babies in mangers. This concreteness in matters “spiritual” sets forth a basis for not being manipulated by authority figures, celebrity personalities, bureaucracies, or abusive bosses, whether in little corporations or from international ministries. Part of the Good News of the Christmas of history is about protecting one’s self and one’s family from false prophets, political messiahs, pretend gods, vain philosophy, superficial analysis, inhumane discipleship, wayward trends, money-grubbing marketing, and power-grubbing PR. The call to a healed relationship with the Creator is for a thinking humanity expected to take seriously truth-claims and evidence rooted in reality.
More than this, public validation is God’s idea and an expression of his identity as a creative, rational being who makes distinctions. He has created a reality of sight and sound so that human beings are capable of sensory experience and can thereby not only enjoy beauty and revel in harmony but also examine the content of angels. This is not reducible to a 30-second witnessing campaign between subway stops. Individuals made in the image of God are equipped to tell the difference between good and bad fruit, apples and oranges, stones and bread. It is an approach that applies across the whole of life. Just as readers should be able to know who the true author of a book is by its cover, seeking individuals can expect to know who the author of existence is by means of the “cover” of this world. What is at issue is the dignity of man. Nothing could be more natural in a cosmos created by God, or fitting during the holidays of Christmas and the New Year, than that human beings resolve to test everything.
“As It Had Been Told Them”
Christmas is about enfleshed truth that is accountable, a body of information and series of events that can be rationally considered, verified out in the external world, and discussed among regular people as facts of life. Among the facts are Bethlehem, Mary, Joseph, a baby, and a manger, none of which are feelings. The facts also include the angels and the veracity of what they said to human beings, for what the shepherds saw and heard in Bethlehem was “as it had been told them,” the fourth element from Luke 2:20 under consideration here.
What “had been told” the shepherds is not an experience that evaporates when they go into Bethlehem and then return back to work. It is not the kind of phenomenon that melts away after one wakes up, puts the book down, leaves the theater, or arrives home after a big conference. Young Jesus in swaddling clothes still lives and breathes after the visitors go away. The angels returned to heaven, not to nonexistence, when the shepherds left to see and hear facts on the ground in Bethlehem. As in everyday life, just because an event is past, it does not therefore become untrue or slip into epistemological shadows or nebulous worlds of private feelings.
Invitation to Verify
But in the concreteness of their content, it is crucial to realize that the angels could have been wrong. Their announcement was an invitation to verify. It contained specific details related to the external world that could be checked out. From the point of view of a human observer on the way to locate a manger, the possibility existed that things might not be “as it had been told them” by apparently reliable sources. We understand this. If you are in a strange city and ask for directions, the information you are given may or may not be accurate. Let’s say you have understood what a person has told you and have carefully written down the names of streets, which way to turn, and so on. You then follow the directions and soon learn whether the words of that person describe the reality of the street.
The Creator has placed human beings in a physical environment where asking questions, gathering information, and seeking wisdom are not fruitless wastes of time. It is a universe where journalism and science can flourish, where individuals can advance knowledge by discovering data and following the evidence wherever it leads. The Creator knows humans can be purposely or inadvertently misdirected. In either case, we are challenged to correct mistaken information. We analyze, experiment, and review results, as often as necessary. In the world are pretend gods and false prophets, inadequate philosophy and harmful worldview. In politics, ministry, business, and science, there are wolves in sheep’s clothing we are to unmask and expose to protect our children. But there are also those who know what they’re talking about and speak truthfully. Their words can be verified and may help others find the right path. That path may lead to a store for that perfect Christmas gift for a loved one. Or it may lead to a manger in a town in Judea.
That’s fine, you say. But what if the angels were wrong? If that case, the answer is clear: If the angels were wrong, they should not be believed. Christmas is about liberating people from “faith” or from “believing in” something apart from evidence. “Religion” defined as “faith” or belief in what you know is not true or as a special phenomenon that operates in a realm alienated from life in the created order is not recommended in the data of the Bible. That kind of believism seems more at home in fascist cults, political messiahs, celebrity worship, certain kinds of social activism, and the manipulation of theological symbols. The Biblical respect for reality is much more concrete. It concerns evidence for a human baby, a perfect life, a humane approach, a public death, and an empirical resurrection. If there’s no child in a manger in Bethlehem, don’t “believe in” the angels. If Jesus is a sinner, then he can’t be a savior. If he died and stayed dead, well, that’s it. Eat, drink, and vote whatever. For further instructions, see 1 Cor. 15.
In light of these considerations, I would suggest four final comments. More could be said, but perhaps this is a good beginning.
First, be an old grizzled shepherd, not a smiley-faced “believer.” The shepherds of Luke 2 do not put God in a closet and say you can know him but only if you go in there and submit to some kind of privatized epistemological baptism that happens to “people of faith.” Yes, the Bible knows about “believers,” but that’s to emphasize the commitment of the whole person to truth-claims that are accepted on the basis of reasoning and information that make rational and evidential sense in the real world. Shepherds, grizzled or otherwise, do get to smile, but first they see the baby.
Second, develop sales resistance. Christmas is about individuals willing to evaluate things for themselves. There is no need to check your brains at the pasture gate just because of bright lights in the sky, fancy advertising, or manipulated symbols on CNN or in form letters from ghostwriters employed by respected bigshots, religious and otherwise. Question authority, think freely, foil the manipulators, eyeball the materialists, refuse the hypocrites, and take responsibility for your life as a choosing, thinking being made in the image of God.
Third, affirm the whole person. Reject the despair of a splintered secular existence where hope sinks like a lead balloon but we’ll pretend it floats because pleasing feelings attend a current holiday. Christmas is about fact and meaning together because the Savior of the world is a real baby in a real manger who lives a Gospel that touches the same ground we walk on every day. Celebrate the humane unity of life as a complete person liberated from brokenness and bad philosophy. Act coherently and authentically at work, in government, on campus, in church, before the easel, in the lab, and with your family. Embrace humanity in community with our true Creator and then watch love and truth burst out of the secular straight-jacket.
Finally, celebrate the individual. An individual named Jesus came to Bethlehem to live and die for people, not for useful cogs in a cosmic machine that burped a mass of humanity into being by accident. He chose a path leading from Bethlehem manger to Roman cross because, despite our choices to walk away from truth and love, flawed human beings remain magnificent creatures of great worth and significance, having been made in the image of God. The Nativity is about regular people, what Francis Schaeffer called “little people” in “little places,” who join with the Creator to rage against the machine, death, sin, and decay. The love of a parent for a child, of a living God for human creatures with particular names and life stories that matter, is not a cruel joke foisted off on us by our genes. Nor is this love of God and man to be disrespected or steamrolled to the ground by the demands of big government, big business, or big ministry. With God we revolt against any who would deify themselves or their groups to transfigure creatures of such great worth into enablers, minions, pawns, and alter egos for the rich, powerful, and hard-chargers of this world.
The Christmas heard and seen in history is a comprehensive and humane revolution of love and truth launched by God for man, one by one, from Bethlehem, to Jerusalem, into Judea, Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth. That’s worth a dance on New Year’s Eve.
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Secularism Takes Hit at British Airways, by Rick Pearcey
O’Reilly, Letterman, and the Culture War, by Rick Pearcey
Rick Pearcey is editor and publisher of The Pearcey Report. This article was originally published Dec. 30, 2007. Copyright J. Richard Pearcey. All rights reserved.