Monthly Archives: November 2012

Happy Holidays! …Or Something Like That


The Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons are upon us.

I love this time of year. I love the weather (even in Houston), the break from toil, the time with friends and family, and I especially love to live these holidays through the eyes of my little children. I also love to reminisce about celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas with my family when I was growing up. And I love to worship God in the context of these holidays at home, at church, and in my devotional times.

What I don’t love is all the chatter that flies around about the terms we use to describe Christmas. In the weeks ahead, there will be much outrage over the substitution of “Christmas” with “holiday.” There will be bumper stickers, Facebook memes, blog posts, and even sermons from committed believers communicating messages like “Keep Christ in Christmas,” “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” etc. There will be other pithy catchphrases. There will probably be protest movements over the fact that stores and government agencies no longer say “Merry Christmas” but instead, “Happy Holidays.”

Enough emotional energy is going to be generated over this issue in the weeks to come to light a small Midwestern city.

Can we stop?

Let me be blunt. Who cares what the White House calls the big Christmas tree in Washington? Who cares what Wal-Mart employees are or are not allowed to say in greeting their customers in the month of December? Who cares if the county courthouse stops putting a nativity scene out front? It doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because none of that diminishes the meaning of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ in the slightest. The political correctness of department stores and government employees has no bearing on either the celebration of the birth of Christ or the significance of that event in human history. Christmas is a holiday celebrated by Christians, and if non-Christian individuals or non-Christian entities do not want to celebrate it, that’s fine.

What does matter is the impression Christians give to those non-Christians during the Christmas season. When Christian folks express outrage over what Christmas is called, or what greeting to use, they are letting the world in on their priority list. They are also letting people in to their attitude toward the culture. Thus, how the term “Christmas” is used around town is of supreme importance; and if the culture substitutes “Christmas” out in favor of another term, then a line has been drawn between “us and them.” How are these impressions consistent with the Great Commission?

Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Christ, who came into the world to save the lost from the death penalty of sin. The Incarnation is celebrated by people who actually believe that God came in the flesh by being born of a virgin. This event is not celebrated by those who do not believe. That’s perfectly logical and acceptable.

The celebration of Christmas has been utterly corrupted in many ways by the culture. Everyone knows that. One way it has been corrupted is that it has become a civil religious holiday. That is, the celebration of Christmas has the American God as its referent, and commercialism as its method.

When the state and the marketplace abandon this form of Christmas, and substitute it for some amorphous, inclusive, civil religious season that has vacation days and consumption as its identifying marks, I would say that’s a good thing. Why should Christians desire that the celebration of God’s Incarnation in Christ be specially identified with those things?

If we Christians want to keep Christ in Christmas, the way to do that is to make the Incarnation of Christ the focus of our celebration. We should not insist that non-Christians celebrate, or even recognize, our celebration of the Virgin Birth. We should see the secularization of Christmas in the culture as a way to clarifythe meaning of Christmas—and welcome that secularization with open arms! The secularization of Christmas liberates us to reject the idolatry of civil religion and the various forms of the corruption of Christmas. We ought then to share the good news of the Incarnation with non-Christians, and do so in sincere love.

The non-Christian world will know us by our love and our accurate and authentic communication of truth; they will not know us by our sloganeering and protests.

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Valuing Intellectual Struggle

Alix Spiegel of NPR tackled a fascinating topic today in a piece entitled, Struggle For Smarts? How Eastern And Western Cultures Tackle Learning.” She identifies some key differences in the value placed on intellectual struggle among schoolchildren in Eastern and Western cultures. Generally speaking, in the West intellectual struggle is viewed as a weakness, while in the East, it is viewed as a strength.

Here is a taste. You can read the article, or listen to it:

Jin Li is a professor at Brown University who, like Stigler, compares the learning beliefs of Asian and U.S. children. She says that to understand why these two cultures view struggle so differently, it’s good to step back and examine how they think about where academic excellence comes from.

For the past decade or so, Li has been recording conversations between American mothers and their children, and Taiwanese mothers and their children. Li then analyzes those conversations to see how the mothers talk to the children about school.

She shared with me one conversation that she had recorded between an American mother and her 8-year-old son.

The mother and the son are discussing books. The son, though young, is a great student who loves to learn. He tells his mother that he and his friends talk about books even during recess and the American mother responds with this:

Mother: Do you know that’s what smart people do, smart grown ups?
Child: I know… talk about books.
Mother: Yeah. So that’s a pretty smart thing to do to talk about a book.
Child: Hmmm mmmm.

It’s a small exchange — a moment. But Li says, this drop of conversation contains a world of cultural assumptions and beliefs.

Essentially, the American mother is communicating to her son that the cause of his success in school is his intelligence. He’s smart — which, Li says, is a common American view.

“The idea of intelligence in believed in the West as a cause,” Li explains. “She is telling him that there is something in him, in his mind, that enables him to do what he does.”

But in many Asian cultures, Li says, academic excellence isn’t linked with intelligence in the same way. “It resides in what they do, but not who they are, what they’re born with,” she says.

She shares another conversation, this time between a Taiwanese mother and her 9-year-old son. They are talking about the piano — the boy won first place in a competition, and the mother is explaining to him why.

“You practiced and practiced with lots of energy,” she tells him. “It got really hard, but you made a great effort. You insisted on practicing yourself.”

“So the focus is on the process of persisting through it despite the challenges, not giving up, and that’s what leads to success,” Li says.

All of this matters because the way you conceptualize the act of struggling with something profoundly effects your actual behavior.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness — a lack of intelligence — it makes you feel bad, and so you’re less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength — an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something — you’re more willing to accept it.

This piece seems to bear out what many of us have been saying all along: that learning takes place as a result of grappling with the material. A person does not have to be smart to learn, only willing to work hard enough to overcome every obstacle. Some obstacles require more diligence than others. But taken little by little, many seemingly overwhelming obstacles yield themselves up with perseverance.

It is also interesting to consider the premium we Westerners place on feelings. Notice in the piece that Spiegel identifies Westerners as following where their feelings lead when it comes to intellectual struggle. Struggle often “makes you feel bad,” so many of us give up. But intellectual struggle, as is evidenced by Eastern cultures according to Spiegel, is “an ability,” a skill to master.

The piece identifies the embracing of intellectual struggle as primarily an Eastern value. It certainly is, but it is also found in Western culture. Certainly the Puritans valued intellectual struggle, and that tradition has been a uniquely American trait. The question remains, how can it be recovered in Western culture in a healthy, beneficial, and lasting way?

"Take That, Mitches"

These are the words of that paragon of virtuous and enlightened citizenship, Beyonce.

Romney supporters are doubtless going to be subjected to a lot of gloating from Obama supporters in the coming days. It’s difficult, to say the least, to absorb the significance of the defeat of your candidate when you hoped he would prevail. This has been a difficult day for me, because I sincerely hoped Romney would win. I truly believed he was the better choice to lead our country, and I was bitterly disappointed that he lost.

Beyonce didn’t help.

But that’s OK. Beyonce is irrelevant. What matters now is living with the reality that President Obama is the choice of the majority of Americans to be the leader of our country, and that his policies are going to be planted deeply into our way of life. That leads to this very important question: what does this fact mean for evangelical Christians, of whom I am one?

It seems there are a set of options for us. We can be despondent, bitter, angry, and mean-spirited. We can lash out. We can characterize Democrats as “enemies.” We can talk of God’s judgment on the nation. We can retreat from political discourse. We can equate the United States with the kingdom of God, or Old Testament Israel, and look forward to all sorts of divine chastisement. We can theorize about what God is going to do to us since Obama was re-elected.

That’s stupid. Let’s not do those things. Please.

I have a better idea. Let’s look to one of our forefathers in the faith–Justin Martyr. He died around the year 165 as a martyr for his confession of Jesus Christ. He had his head cut off.

Justin wrote several classic works in apologetics. His First Apology was addressed directly to the emperor Antoninus Pius and the Roman Senate. In this letter to the highest Roman authorities, he pleaded for justice for the Christians who were being persecuted solely on the basis of their confession of Christ. He said, in effect, if you are going to judge us, then do so on the basis of whether or not we have acted wickedly, not simply because we carry the name of “Christian.” Christians, Justin said, are the most loyal of the emperor’s subjects, committed to truth, righteousness, compassion, and civic duty.

Why? Justin told the emperor and the senate that the reason Christians were the most loyal subjects was because of their belief in the righteousness of God. Christians look to a heavenly kingdom where they will be in the presence of the holy God forever. It was because the Christians lived in the sight of God that they were good citizens–not to mention the fact that Christ explicitly taught them so.

He went on to explain what Christianity is, by discussing fulfillment of prophecies concerning Christ, the person and work of Christ, and Christian worship practices and the reasons for those practices.

Christians have a golden opportunity right now to follow this example.

Christian citizenship was modeled for us by the early Christians. They were worshippers of the true God, which meant that their actions were motivated by the fear of God. They took Christ’s moral teaching very seriously. They were salt and light in their culture. They protected the lives of unwanted infants, the infirm, the elderly, the outcasts. They were generous, they prayed for their persecutors. They payed their taxes joyfully. Yes, joyfully. Justin said, “everywhere we, more readily than all men, endeavor to pay to those appointed by you the taxes both ordinary and extraordinary, as we have been taught by Him” (First Apology XVII, 168 in vol. 1 of the Ante-Nicene Fathers).  They sought the kingdom of heaven prior to everything else and were not obsessed with preserving their earthly lives, in obedience to the clear teaching of their Christ.

Still, they did not compromise on their convictions. They refused to worship idols, refused to abort their unborn, refused to expose their infants, and refused to do anything against the teachings of Christ. They accepted the consequences of their counter-cultural actions by going to their deaths, many of them. But they were loyal to the Roman state. Justin said to the emperor, “And more than all other men are we your helpers and allies in promoting peace” (First Apology XII, 166).

Justin’s writings to the emperor reflect faithfulness to Paul’s admonition to believers in Romans 13 about being submissive to government. That passage is binding on us–particularly to those of us who say we believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.

So to evangelicals, I say–stop complaining about Obama and the liberals. Stop dressing up in cheesy colonial costumes in order to make a splash for that which is passing away. Quit gay bashing. Leave off persecuting people who came to the US illegally. Forget about the pipe dreams that America is supposed to be a Christian nation, or that it is exceptional. And for everyone’s sake, stop claiming that God is judging America. God doesn’t judge nations. The judgement of God is on those who do not believe on the Son, no matter their nationality. See John 3.18.

Instead, be true to your confession. Don’t rely on the state to do the job of the church. Obey the teachings of Christ. Be compassionate and merciful. Champion the interests of those who cannot do so for themselves. Educate yourself on what Christianity is, and why it is the truth. Believe in Christ, not merely on the basis of your experience or on sentimentality, but on the basis of who Christ is in reality, and the transcendent truths of His words. Stay true to your moral convictions, and joyfully and lovingly accept the consequences. Love your detractors. Pray for those who think you are a bigot, an idiot, intolerant. Be a friend to everyone. Do not repay evil for evil. Overcome meanness with grace. Never suffer for sinning (I Peter 4.15). Suffer for the glory of Christ (I Peter 4.16).

That’s our pattern. Get with it.